Mississippi River apocalypse 

Climate Economy

Mississippi River apocalypse 

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A first-hand report by our finance editor from his family farm reveals how climate change is drastically affecting U.S. agriculture.

Last month, I visited our family farms in Southeast Missouri to check in at harvest time on our crops of soybeans, corn, and cotton. But before I could get to our fields, I crossed over the bridge from Memphis to Arkansas and noticed that the Mississippi River was missing — literally. What I saw was more like a big ditch than the mighty Mississippi. (Later, I learned that the water level at Memphis was 50 feet below the high-water mark left by the flood of 2011.)

The mighty Mississippi goes dry 

Up in the Missouri Bootheel region (so-called because of its shape), the river was even more desiccated. At a point where the river is a mile-wide, most of its bed was completely dry. You could walk far beyond the mid-point which marks the state line boundary with Tennessee. That’s when I realized there was yet another problem to be dealt with in this blighted farm year, one already beset by unprecedented climate problems. Without a functioning Mississippi River, there’s no way to ship this fall’s harvested grain crops to market. Thousands of barges have become stranded by low water from Cairo, Illinois to Vicksburg Mississippi, unable to carry cargo to shipping ports around New Orleans. 

While I was surveying our harvest on site, this traffic jam was confirmed when I heard that the major grain elevators located on the river 20 miles away from our fields were not accepting deliveries of corn and soybeans, due to their inability to ship grain down the river and their overflowing storage facilities. In our family farm business, we’re covered, having contracted most of our crops in advance and having access to a local grain elevator for storage, but a producer who had neither of those advantages could be out of luck at the worst moment: Harvest time, and no buyer.

The Mississippi River drains almost 60% of North America’s rivers. Barges carry most of the 92% of U.S. agricultural exports and 78% of the global exports of feed grains and soybeans that are produced in the greater Mississippi River Basin which are the larger part of the $130 billion in goods it carries annually. No barges, no exports. Commodity prices rise while crops degrade in outdoor storage, creating supply shortages down the line. The result will be higher food prices for consumers, adding to inflation and food security issues.

Commodity prices rise while crops degrade in outdoor storage, creating supply shortages down the line. The result will be higher food prices for consumers, adding to inflation and food security issues. 

No Plan B

There is no good sustainable, cost-effective plan B for stalled shipping on the Mississippi. A single barge carries as much cargo as 16 railcars or 70 trucks. A barge can move one ton of freight 29% further than a rail car, and four times further than a truck. What’s more, rail generates 39% more carbon dioxide than barge travel for the same amount of cargo; for trucks, the figure is 371%.

By the time of my visit, it had already been quite a year in heartland farm country. Prices for inputs rose dramatically; diesel fuel prices doubled, and fertilizer prices tripled. Then came incessant, massive spring rain storms, flooding fields and delaying planting by weeks. Corn was planted up to a month late, ditto for soybeans and cotton. Some crops were planted but then drowned in tsunamis of rainfall, rotted in pools of standing water, and then were either re-planted late or finally written off as disasters to be covered by insurance (only 50%-80% of loss). 

Late planting of crops means lower yields because less time for plants to ripen. The mitigating remedy is simply to hope for better summer weather. Instead, what we got this year was intense drought and searing heat. During one six-week period in June-July, we received barely over one-half inch of moisture. Temperatures regularly topped 95+ for days on end. This drought and heat were particularly damaging to corn, which pollinates during that period. Not surprisingly, our corn yields were either barely average or below. 

No end in sight 

This year is the second La Nina season in a row. That weather pattern in the far-off Pacific directly affects the American agricultural heartland by producing drought conditions. Next year is predicted to be yet another La Nina year, the third straight. What will replenish the Mississippi River? No one is sure. “Right now there’s no end in sight,” said Lisa Parker, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Yes, in the Bootheel, the majority of crops are irrigated but that’s costly when used as much as it was this year. From diesel and electric motor costs to wear and tear on the equipment, the expenses of fuel and maintenance in delivering water to thirsty crops rose sharply. Also, although the Bootheel’s productive soil is reclaimed swamp and sits on a healthy aquifer of underground water, the water table level was definitely lowered this season by the prodigious amounts of water required to produce crops due to lack of rain. 

What will replenish the Mississippi River? No one is sure.

If the disappearing Mississippi River were not apocalypse enough, our family farmlands sit on top of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, a major fault line and a prolific source of earthquakes that affect parts of seven states. In 1811-12, four of the largest earthquakes in U.S. history shook much of the country. Church bells rang in Richmond, and windows and furniture rattled in Washington, D.C. Most astonishingly, the Mississippi River flowed backward from the upheavals. Violent storms followed for months. 

The next “big one” is projected to take out everything from St. Louis to Memphis, from the cities to the surrounding countryside for miles on each side of the river. The devastation would be so severe because the activity takes place three to 15 miles below the Earth’s surface, not near ground level as with the San Andreas Fault. There is as yet no information on how a seriously depleted water table due to prolonged drought would affect (or not) the movement of the deeply buried tectonic plates that make up the New Madrid Fault. 

So, add major earthquake risk to the heavy rains, extended drought, and record high temperatures that have afflicted agriculture this year, and you have an actual record — not a theory — of extreme weather and environmental instability that will affect the food supply for months, if not years, to come. 

Year after year, American producers offer a master class in resiliency. Each farming season, they deal with unpredictable weather patterns to grow the commodity crops that feed and clothe millions (corn, soybeans, cotton) around the world. Recent years are raising the bar for them in challenges due to climate change. It’s time to move into high gear and address climate issues before these extreme weather problems grow into larger ones than they can manage.

Featured photo credit: Cindy Folks Lester

Written by

John Howell

John Howell is a writer, editor, and broadcaster who oversees the Climate Finance Weekly newsletter and advises on communications and media strategy. He was co-founder, editorial director, and chief of thought leadership for 3BL Media, for which he managed all original editorial content, wrote, and edited newsletters, and created the Brands Taking Stands initiative. He has worked as an editor and contributor for Elle, Artforum, and High Times magazines, developed new media for Hearst Magazines, and created communications for Calvin Klein, Polo/Ralph Lauren, and The Body Shop. He lives and works in New Hampshire and Maine.