Climate Change and the Shrinking Mississippi

A dredging vessel churns through the Mississippi River near Greenville, Miss., Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012. Officials with the U.S
A dredging vessel churns through the Mississippi River near Greenville, Miss., Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012. Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say low water levels that are restricting shipping traffic, forcing harbor closures and causing towboats and barges to run aground on the Mississippi River are expected to continue into October. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Conversations about climate change routinely observe that extreme weather, including droughts, will be exacerbated as the Earth warms. Droughts lead to a lot of bad things, including food shortages, water shortages, and fires. In recent days, however, there has been a news story developing that illustrates an additional consequence of drought, and one that deserves a lot more attention.

At the moment, the United States is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in American history. One consequence is that the water level of the Mississippi River has fallen to the point where the river itself may have to be shut down to shipping traffic. What would a shutdown mean? Well, consider that 60 percent of all grain exported from the United States travels on the river. Or that over a period of a couple of weeks the river carried goods through St. Louis that would fill 500,000 semi trucks. In other words, we have no workable substitute for the river.

While droughts are not permanent events, even a temporary shutdown will cost thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. Perhaps more importantly, the changing climate ensures that there will be more droughts of this magnitude in the future. Rather than facing a problem like this once in a generation, we may face it every few years. It is difficult to imagine an impassable river every four or five years or, perhaps worse, for a couple of years in a row.

The federal government is aware of the danger and has stepped in to try to help. The Army Corps of Engineers is engaged in a dredging operation that will hopefully address the current crisis or, at least, delay the closure of the river. The longer-term problem, though, is the changing climate itself. We routinely divert resources in response to climate-related crises like this one, but we have yet to find the political will to curb emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the Earth. In this sense, we are treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The more the planet warms, the more we will face crises like an impassable Mississippi or a Hurricane Sandy. Is our best plan really to suffer more and more harm each year and to spend more and more money trying to respond in a short-term way to crises generated by climate change? Shouldn't we be treating the climate change disease itself by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses?