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Climate Change: Mississippi River water levels reach critical low

Climate Change: Mississippi River water levels reach critical low

The flow of the Mississippi River has dropped to levels not seen for several years after a long period of low rainfall, affecting river transport to the Gulf of Mexico, a key route for the economy and exports of the United States.

Tower Rock, a huge island in the middle of the Mississippi River south of Saint Louis, is often surrounded by water and is only accessible by boat. But the severe drought in the Midwest, which is dropping river levels to near historic levels, allows people to access the rock formation on foot.

According to data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the depth of the legendary river in Memphis, in the state of Tennessee, is the lowest since 2011, when the service began to publish information about this area.

Mississippi River water levels

This situation is mainly due to the lack of rain, especially in the states of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, through which the Missouri River passes, one of the main tributaries of the Mississippi.

“The river has receded enough that you can walk to Tower Rock without getting your feet wet or muddy,” Missouri resident Jeff Biget told CNN. “I only remember seeing something like this once in my life.”

Photographs taken by Biget show several people walking across the rocky river bed towards the island tower, an easy walk and one that will remain so as water levels are expected to continue to drop for at least the next two weeks.

Tower Rock can be reached on foot when the water level is below two feet on the Chester, Illinois River gauge, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. That indicator fell to around zero on Thursday and the forecast shows no signs of recovery any time soon.

Severe drought

“More than 55% of the contiguous states of the country face drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, it is the area most affected by the phenomenon since April. And more than 133 million people live in those areas, making it the largest affected population since 2016.

The severe drought covers more than 70% of Arkansas and almost 40% of Missouri – the number was 5% just a month ago. Several places have seen little rain at record levels in recent weeks, including Memphis, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Springfield, Missouri. The Climate Prediction Center forecast is dry, with below-average precipitation through at least October 23.

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The US Army Division of Engineers carried out emergency dredging operations to allow the barges to circulate. “It’s a very difficult time with the harvest right now, it really is the worst possible time for this serious low water situation to happen,” said Deb Calhoun, vice president of the Waterways Council, which promotes good river management, dams and locks.

The winter wheat harvest finished at the beginning of August and the corn harvest is in full swing, which increases the quantities to be transported, like every year.

Tensions in agricultural markets

According to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), about two-thirds of the grain exported by sea from the United States comes from the Gulf of Mexico, where it arrives mainly through the Mississippi.

A barge can carry the equivalent volume of 15 rail cars and 60 semi-trailers, according to the American Waterways Operators, which represents the industry. “This time of year you often see 40 or more barges lined up, pushed by a tugboat,” Calhoun said. “But right now it’s more like 24 or 25 at a time, depending on the level of the river.”

“Right now, we’re just waiting for the rain to come,” he added. That weekend some precipitation is expected in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. “The low level of the Mississippi River will clearly affect exports,” warned Virginia McGathey of McGathey Commodities Group.

According to the USDA, the price of transporting agricultural commodities by barge has quadrupled since the end of August.

“With these prices we are excluding ourselves from the export market,” said Michael Zuzolo, of Global Commodity Analytics and Consulting, who believes that corn is particularly affected since barge traffic has been reduced by half.

Winter wheat has suffered from the drought recorded in some areas, especially in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado, where more than 50% of US production is concentrated.

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