The Second Largest US River is Shrinking! Lasting Environmental Impacts from the Shrinking Waterway
Satellite imagery has shown that the Mississippi River has shrunk drastically since 2021. This has innumerable impacts on commerce, agriculture, and the environment.
The Mississippi River spans 10 states and is home to a widely diverse number of wildlife and vegetation. The waterway supplies millions with freshwater and serves as a pathway for cargo ships to reach further inland. However, the river is unfortunately disappearing according to satellite images showing more of the river bottom this year.
Proof of shrinking
NASA satellites have taken photos of the river in 2021 and in this year. Scientists then compared the photos and saw that the river has drastically thinned. Scientists now see a much drier riverbed compared to what they saw at the same time two years ago.
NOAA has a network of 1842 gauges reading the water levels along the Mississippi. Only one of these gauges is near flood stage with zero gauges flooded. Contrasting, 16 gauges are currently at or below their water threshold.
Why is the river so low?
This summer brought many extreme heat days with not very many rainy days especially in the Mississippi river basin. It seemed every week this summer brought excessive heat warnings across the Central US. However, we did not see nearly as many rainfall events as usual.
This has put the Head of Passes, where the Mississippi connects with the Gulf of Mexico, in an exceptional drought. Drought conditions extend across majority of the river as of now.
The Mississippi River offers a path for cargo ships to enter the United States and travel into the inner states. According to shipnext.com, approximately 11,000 vessels cross into the Mississippi each year. These vessels transport a host of cargo each day.
However, a shrinking Mississippi cannot be a host to these ships as there is simply not room along the waterway. This severely limits the number of vessels that can pass along the river.
Less space for shipping causes a big issue for farmers as the Mississippi River Delta is home to a large portion of farms in the United States. Farmers utilize the river to ship their crops on barges down the river. They now must limit the load on these barges, so the vessel sits higher on the water and does not hit the bottom.
Water supply shrinks
The National Park Service cites almost 15 million people rely on the Mississippi for their drinking water. However, as the river shrinks, it will struggle to support this many.
Gulf Coast states also will have to deal with saltwater intrusion. Saltwater intrusion occurs as groundwater aquifers are depleted, so saltwater from the ocean is pumped instead.
This is a huge issue for farmers along the Mississippi because instead of pumping freshwater, they pump saltwater which cannot be used for agriculture. This will become more and more prevalent as the Mississippi shrinks and there is less available groundwater in the delta.