Mississippi River hits record low levels

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

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.

More looks at the drying-up river bed

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.

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.

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.

Trouble upstream

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.

Moving image showing greener ground and wider Mississippi River to brown ground and sandbars.
This animation of a piece of the mighty Mississippi River shows the change in river levels from this past July 14 to October 17, 2022. You can see the water levels drop and sandbars become prominent. This bend in the Mississippi River happens where the states of Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee meet. Satellite imagery via the U.S. National Weather Service.

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.

October 20, 2022

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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