View from space: Mississippi river well below normal in 2012

Two space images of the Mississippi – one from August 2012 and the other from August 2011. You can see that the riverbed is drier in 2012.

Here are two spacecraft images of the mighty Mississippi River, the largest river in the United States and the chief river of the largest river system in North America. The first images is from earlier this month (August, 2012) and shows a stretch of the river just south of Memphis, Tennessee. The other, which shows the same section of river, was acquired by NASA satellite almost exactly one year ago. Notice the contrast! In 2012, with ongoing severe drought in the central U.S., the Mississippi River is well below normal.

A portion of the Mississippi River as seen from space on August 8, 2012. North is to the left. NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey.

Landsat 7 captured the image above on August 8, 2012. Meanwhile, the image below was acquired nearly a year earlier.

A portion of the Mississippi River as seen from space on August 14, 2011 – almost exactly one year before the image above. North is to the left. NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey.

Landsat 5 took the lower image on August 14, 2011. That spring, the Mississippi had swelled to historic high levels. It rose out of its banks and rolls across a wide flood plain, eating at flood barriers. But by August of 2011, the river was close to its normal level, according to NASA, which also said:

The Mississippi River is a major North American transit route, carrying goods to and from ports in New Orleans and Baton Rogue. The top image shows that low water levels have narrowed the river from a superhighway to a small road. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers maintains a 9-foot shipping channel in the lower Mississippi and has dredges working around the clock to keep the channel clear. Not only are water levels low in 2012, but the floods of 2011 dropped a layer of sediment on the riverbed, reshaping previously open channels.

The reduced river flow in 2012 has translated into millions of dollars in extra shipping costs, as the loss of just one inch of draft means that a barge can carry 17 tons less than it otherwise would. The result is decreased shipping capacity.

Reduced water levels had one positive impact: The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has been able to access and repair levees that were damaged in last year’s floods. The levees are the tan lines that surround the river in these images.

The Mississippi ranks as the fourth-longest and tenth-largest river in the world. The river either borders or cuts through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Many of these same states have been undergoing severe drought in 2012. See the image below.

Bottom line: With ongoing drought in the central U.S., the Mississippi River in 2012 is well below normal. This post contrasts two space images of the Mississippi – both from NASA Landsat satellites – one from August 2012 and the other from August 2011.

Read more from NASA about these images.

Deborah Byrd

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