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Mississippi River

The Recent Drop in Mississippi River Water Levels Has Been Affecting Grain Shipments

The US has seen an extreme lack of rain in the grain-producing areas, which isn’t just affecting crops. The low water levels of the Mississippi River has exposed more banks and made wharfage difficult.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 343.7 million acres of land used for farming were experiencing drought by the first of March. Meanwhile, the Washington Post says that at these low water levels, exports from America’s breadbasket are getting riskier.

October is a busy time of year for US crop farmers, who are gathering their harvests to export. Soybean and maize are among the biggest grain exports, as well as 175 million tons of freight transported on the upper Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River is an economic artery for the U.S., according to the National Park Service. The river, which runs from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, passes through 29 locks and dams, which are operated by tugs and barges. Recently, traffic has been halted temporarily due to emergency dredging work to counter low-water levels.

The Boston Herald reported on the 4th of October, at the time saying that at least eight barges had grounded in the previous seven days. Eight days later, The Washington Post said: “Days after a queue of stalled river traffic grew to more than 1,700 barges during emergency dredging near Vicksburg, Miss., a separate 24-hour dredging closure began Tuesday near Memphis. More dredging, which routinely costs billions of dollars a year, could be needed if barges continue to run aground.”

The worst bottlenecks in Cairo are the meeting of both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The National Weather Service reports that water levels in the Cairo area dropped by nearly 3ft – from 12ft to 9ft – in less than a week, from 7 October to 13 October.

Large ships are designed for river use because they are not able to access shallower bodies of water the way smaller boats can. The fact that these full-sized, modern ships are getting stuck in the shallow riverbed is yet another example of how climate change impacts trade flows.

One of the reasons for this is poor rainfall in Germany and other parts of Europe, which severely reduced the water levels in rivers like the Rhine. The Guardian quoted a shipping company executive as saying that below 40 cm, many vessels cannot pass due to insufficient depth.

Running through Switzerland, France and the Netherlands, as well as Germany, the Rhine is of vital strategic importance to all of these countries. Thanks to its fast currents and proximity to major metropolitan areas in each of these countries, it ships over 300 million tons of cargo a year. More recently there have been discussions about dredging the Rhine to maintain its commercial relevance.

Dredging may be a short-term solution to keep these waterways and other rivers navigable. But, due to severe weather events like Hurricane Matthew, transport routes are in jeopardy for the foreseeable future.

Maritime shipping will look very different in 2020. World-wide targets for emissions reduction are increasing, and only time will tell if these new regulations will be enough to stop pollution from contaminating our rivers.

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