Freight on the Mississippi is being threatened by record low water levels, and it may result in global supply chain issues.

The Mississippi River, which stretches for 2340 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and connects the Great Lakes to the Caribbean, is a critical commercial highway. Over 500 million tons of goods are shipped on the river each year. Mostly, it’s food and fuel products. Over 90% of U.S. agricultural exports are grown in the Mississippi River Basin, which includes 80% of the world’s grain exports. Much of that winds up in ships on the mighty river, heading south to the sea.

But this fall, with its critically low rainfall through the entire basin, is in danger of shutting down freight on the Mississippi. Thousands of barges loaded with corn, soy, and coal are backed up in parts of the river that have become too shallow to traverse. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, at least eight heavy barges are aground, furthering the congestion.

“America is going to shut down if we shut down,” Mike Ellis, CEO of American Commercial Barge Line in Indiana told the Wall Street Journal, meaning river shipping in general.

Early fall is when grain is typically harvested in the heartland, making this an especially critical time for freight on the Mississippi. Freshly harvested grain is perishable, meaning delayed barge-loads may spoil while they’re waiting for the river to become passable again. And that may not be soon. According to the National Weather Service, there’s no rain predicted anywhere in the Mississippi Basin in the next several weeks.

The river is commonly low in the fall, but not this low. River gauges in Arkansas are recording the lowest water they’ve ever seen. The weak outflow is allowing saltwater to creep farther upriver than normal, threatening drinking water as far upstream as Natchez, Mississippi – over 100 miles upriver from the ocean.

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