What a Drought

Climate Change Hits the Mississippi River

01.18.13 6:36 PM ET

Here on the east coast, global climate change means earlier springs. Who can object to that? But elsewhere, the costs are harsher.

For months along the Mississippi River here, the withering drought has caused record-breaking low water levels that have threatened to shut down traffic on the world’s largest navigable inland waterway. …

The fact that the river has remained open for business along the critical “Middle Miss” — the 200 miles between the Mississippi’s last dam-and-locks structure, above St. Louis, down to Cairo, Ill., where the plentiful Ohio River flows in — stems from a remarkable feat of engineering that involved months of nonstop dredging, blasting and scraping away of rock obstructions along the riverbed, effectively lowering the bottom of the channel by two feet. …

Despite the success in keeping the Mississippi open, the effects of the low water can be seen up and down the river, both in reduced barge traffic and in the disarray caused by receding waters. At the offices of JB Marine Service in St. Louis the other day, the company’s president, George Foster, listed to one side as he walked down the hall toward his office. The offices are on a barge that has floated in the river since 1976, but which is on dry land today. Now the floors are pitched at a 7.3-degree angle, and picture frames have shifted to a crazy angle that brings a carnival fun house to mind.