Mississippi River hits record low levels
Mississippi River in Memphis. This ain’t normal, y’all. pic.twitter.com/9LYVjgiRtG
— Scott Martin (@smartin_scott) October 16, 2022
Mississippi River experiencing record lows
The Mississippi River reached record low levels this week, lower in some areas than at any time since records began being kept in 1954. Indeed, as of October 18, 2022, the Mississippi River had hit a record low of -11.1 feet (-3.4 meters) at Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, the National Weather Service said that the water levels from Cairo, Illinois, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were so low that:
… commercial activities such as barge traffic and riverboats were experiencing difficulty navigating portions of the river.
And, forecasters predict the level will continue to fall with drought conditions persisting.
A quick look at the drying-up river bed
The #Mississippi River at record low levels in many areas. Here near #Tiptonville, TN people are walking and vehicles have been driving on dry river bed that would be totally under water in normal conditions. #MOwx #TNwx #ARwx #MSwx pic.twitter.com/u4UKW7jXf4
— Charles Peek (@CharlesPeekWX) October 19, 2022
— WeatherNation (@WeatherNation) October 17, 2022
Why is it happening? Drought
2022 saw a hot, dry summer in much of the United States. Likewise, the heat and lack of rain affected the amount of water hitting areas that feed into the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi’s source is 2,350 miles (3,782 km) north of the Gulf of Mexico at Lake Itasca, Minnesota. Correspondingly, in the Drought Monitor, you can see the large areas of drought that extend along the length of the Mississippi River.
And it’s a dry time of year for the Mississippi River
Though the low level of the Mississipi this year is unprecedented in modern history, it’s normal, however, to see lower levels in the mighty river at this time of year, around areas such as Memphis. To be sure, during late summer and early fall, the waters can run low after hot and dry summers.
Previously, the low-level record at Memphis was at -10.7 feet on July 10, 1988. Later, two other record lows happened on August 30, 2006, and September 19, 2012.
The 2022 level of the Mississippi’s water is, significantly, the lowest anyone has seen since records began being kept in 1954.
Low water conditions continue on the lower #OhioRiver and lower #MississippiRiver with a few locations preliminarily breaking modern day low water records from Cairo, IL to Memphis, TN. pic.twitter.com/d2rqludy77
— NWS LMRFC (@NWSLMRFC) October 18, 2022
More looks at the drying-up river bed
Tower Rock Natural Area in Missouri. This is usually under water. The Mississippi River is down because of our drought. It’s rare to see it like this. pic.twitter.com/XtGDqLauTw
— Hiking With Shawn (@hikingwithshawn) October 17, 2022
— ShearM?dness (@ShearMadnss) October 16, 2022
Aerial photos of the record low Mississippi River just south of Cairo, IL #ilwx #kywx #mowx #tnwx #arwx #mswx #lawx #mississippiriver #aerial #cairoil #sandbar #drought #barge #commerce pic.twitter.com/fvt9PiAro2
— Ohio Valley Aerial (@stmchsr01) October 15, 2022
What does the number mean?
By the way, you might be wondering what a record low elevation of -11.1 feet (-3.4 meters) means. In this case, hydrologists and geologists use a term called stage to describe the level of a river’s water surface. More specifically, they measure it above or below an established gage datum, or zero point, at a given location. So for example, it’s 11.1 (3.4 meters) below a typical Mississippi water surface, at a given location, in this case, especially around Memphis.
Gauges have an arbitrary reference elevation for stage observations. This is called the datum. When the water elevation is the same as the datum then the stage is zero. Below that level and the stage goes negative.
— NWS Memphis (@NWSMemphis) October 18, 2022
Mississippi River exposes bones and boats
In addition, reminiscent of Lake Mead reaching historic low levels and revealing multiple bodies, the Mississippi River’s low levels are revealing human remains as well.
A woman looking for rocks along the banks of the drought-stricken Mississippi River over the weekend discovered bones that turned out to be human, local officials said https://t.co/CoY5vTQpsR
— CNN (@CNN) October 19, 2022
Also, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a shipwreck appeared from the receding waters. Indeed, archaeologists believe the shipwreck dates to the late 1800s or early 1900s. The archaeologists are examining it before the waters of the Mississippi return and send it back to the river bottom.
Louisiana’s state archeologist believes the ship may be the Brookhill Ferry, which likely carried people and horse-drawn wagons from one-side of the river to the other before it sank during a major storm. https://t.co/8dXjyJcplI
— NBC10 Philadelphia (@NBCPhiladelphia) October 18, 2022
Another key point, similarly, is that the rivers that feed into the Mississippi are also undergoing low levels. For example, the Platte River in Nebraska feeds into the Missouri River, which then feeds into the Mississippi. All of these rivers are experiencing low levels from ongoing, persistent drought.
— Drought Center (@DroughtCenter) October 17, 2022
River levels on the Missouri River are much lower than normal due primarily to widespread drought upstream. The Missouri River at Herman is lower than 95% of the previously recorded river observations for this time of year. #mowx pic.twitter.com/6KeazjdTEz
— NWS St. Louis (@NWSStLouis) October 6, 2022
Drought exposes steamboat that sunk in Missouri River over 100 years ago https://t.co/WLXCIbf8X1
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) September 6, 2022
Bottom line: The Mississippi River has hit all-time lows in some areas. A hot, dry summer has led to lower water levels, revealing bones and boats.