Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, no more Mississippi
One of the most important waterways in America is slowly disappearing and it will have catastrophic results for food supply.
The United States of America is huge. The representation of the country on the map does not do justice. Russia which seems to cover half the world has a land area of 17 million sq. km. America by comparison has a land area of about 9 million sq. km. It is more than half of Russia’s land area and three times the size of India. As a result, despite having two coasts, the country has a vast tract of land that has no access to the coast.
The Mississippi River is the Nile of North America. The Missouri River which is the longest in North America drains into the Mississippi and so does the river Ohio.
America produces a lot of agricultural goods. A lot. All of the agricultural produce from the Midwest is transported to other parts of the US and the world through the Mississippi and its tributaries. In many cases, it is more economical to float a barge and take the produce down Mississippi out into the Gulf of Mexico than to drive it across or even take it by train.
The Mississippi River is an important route for commerce. Thousands of barges haul commodities such as gas, coal, fertilizer and building materials along the 3,766-kilometer stretch of waterway.
The barges are cheaper and more environmentally friendly to use than trucks or railway. However, the low water levels are making it difficult for the boats to clear some parts of the river, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dredging to maintain a channel for the barges, which are moving very slowly along the Mississippi.
The water levels in the Mississippi are so low that seawater is flowing upriver and that is part of the reason the US Army has been called in. It would destroy the availability of drinking water and arable water.
Similar effects at play
7 years ago, I visited the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Iceland. The climax scene of Die Another Day was shot at the lagoon. That lagoon is disappearing as the sea water leaches into the lagoon. Since salt water has a lower freezing point than water, the lagoon no longer freezes over. Even for the shooting of the “Die Another Day” sequence, they built a barge blocking the sea and left it that way for 3 months for the salinity to fall and for the water to freeze over. Iceland does not have the Army corps or the budget of a big Hollywood movie so Jökulsárlón will transform from a glacier lagoon to a lagoon soon.
Coming back to America, over the past 6 months, a mid-western drought has not only dried the Mississippi but also caused the soil to become incredibly dry and lose its moisture.
Source: Washington Post
The nation’s mightiest, most mythic waterway has been strangled by months of dry conditions, which have sent water levels plummeting to historic lows. For weeks now, that slow-moving crisis has made it difficult, if not impossible, to move barges down a river that serves as a highway for about 60 percent of the nation’s foreign-bound corn and soybeans.
The result is a season of uncertainty for many up and down the river who depend on it for their livelihoods, from farmers growing crops to the tugboat pilots who steer barges toward the Gulf of Mexico and back. The deep worries over the crippled supply chain have mingled with the sheer curiosity of people who have flocked to the banks of the Mississippi to marvel at a sight few can ever recall.
Source: Washington Post
The river has dried up so much over the years that now the viability of the river as a navigation channel itself is in question.
Levels have sunk so low that many boat ramps don’t stretch down far enough to reach the water. Docks that usually float with ease sit tilted and grounded on riverbanks. Stretches of the river have transformed into a marvel of drought, attracting onlookers to spots such as a dead-end road outside Portageville.
Jarrod Tipton brought his son, Jaxson, to bear witness in his Spider-Man pajamas.
“He’s 7, and I told him we need to get over here because he’d probably never see anything like this again in his life,” Tipton said. “You can almost walk to Tennessee,” he said, gazing across the only sliver of water that remained between him and the far bank.
Source: Washington Post
Source: The Atlantic
People walk toward Tower Rock to check out the formation typically surrounded by the Mississippi River and accessible only by boat, in Perry County, Missouri, on October 19, 2022. Foot traffic to the rock formation has been made possible because of near-record-low water levels along the river
The region through which the Mississippi runs produces most of the corn and soybeans. For those who know the American food industry, it would be clear that without corn the entire food industry will grind to a halt. Also, soybeans form a very important part of livestock feed.
With water levels at record lows, barges have run aground, causing traffic jams as boats wait for the US Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a path through the shallows. The problem has been building for months. Summer brought meager rain to much of the Plains and Midwest. Now it’s harvest time, when farmers bring in their grains and other crops, send them to market, and lay down fertilizer before the winter snows. The shriveled Mississippi has forced them to seek alternatives, all of them more expensive, like moving soybeans by rail to the Gulf Coast or shipping everything through distant West Coast ports. That will inevitably increase pressure on global food prices at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already sent them soaring.
Exports are going to be hit!
And The Guardian reported late last week that, “The Mississippi River Basin produces nearly all – 92% – of US agricultural exports, and 78% of the global exports of feed grains and soybeans. The recent drought has dropped water levels to alarmingly low levels that are causing shipping delays, and seeing the costs of alternative transport, such as rail, rise.”
The Register article explained that, “Even with drought cutting yields in parts of Iowa, however, farmers this year are forecast to harvest their second-largest soybean and seventh-largest corn crops. Nationally, farm receipts are expected to reach a record, thanks to higher grain and livestock prices, the USDA reported in September.
“But inflation is taking a growing toll. The crop being harvested was the second-most expensive on record to grow: The cost has risen 18% from 2021. U.S. farm income is forecast to fall 1% this year to an inflation-adjusted $147.7 billion when compared to last year, the USDA said.”
It is unlikely that there are going to be heavy rains that supply water to the river in the coming months. If the situation persists beyond April…
Buckle up for some high-cost food next year. The Bloomberg article linked above has an incredible illustration of the countries to which exports flow out of the Mississippi. They are all most likely to be hit. American livestock and meat industry is going to feel like it is 2020 all over again.
The irony here is that if I conclude this article by saying this would be a great time to look at commodity futures and take a position expecting prices to rise, many of the people reading this article would be moved to action. Instead, if I say, the Mississippi River may not exist by 2040 - crickets.
We are moved to action in moments to profit off a veritable tragedy but not to do something to avoid it as amply demonstrated at COP27.