Rivers are critical corridors that connect cities and ecosystems alike. When drought develops, water levels fall, making river navigation harder and more expensive.
In 2022, water levels in some of the world’s largest rivers, including the Rhine in Europe and the Yangtze in China, fell to historically low levels. The Mississippi River fell so low in Memphis, Tennessee, in mid-October that barges were unable to float, requiring dredging and special water releases from upstream reservoirs to keep channels navigable.
Conditions on the lower Mississippi may be easing somewhat, thanks to early winter rains. But as Earth scientists at the University of Memphis, we see this year’s dramatic plunge in water levels as a preview of a climate-altered future.
River barges are an efficient way to transport bulk commodities, such as grain shipments, and heavy equipment over long distances. But that’s true only for normal water conditions. Increased swings between extreme lows and highs on the Mississippi River, driven by climate change, mean that typical water conditions are no longer the norm, and that river transport is likely to face more backups in the future.
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