Those who care to know realize that this Winter so far has meant no relief from severe drought over most of the central United States and prospects do not look good for Spring either. Another Summer like last year, and some towns in West Texas will start to run out of water entirely. Despite that, not a single West Texas broadcast news station has used the words “climate change” in three years of reporting on the drought. Denialism is rife in the Red States even when the object of denial is right up in people’s faces.
And here’s another symptom where the underlying cause is hardly being talked about where it matters – the mighty Mississippi is so shallow that barge traffic cannot move – costing the economy billions in lost trade and wages.
A news release issued by two trade groups, the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council, warned last week that water levels had fallen faster than anticipated, and a section of the river may become impassable by Thursday. The groups estimate that a closure until the end of the month would affect about 8,000 jobs, $54m in wages and benefits, and 7.2m tonnes of commodities, worth around $2.8bn dollars.
Debra Colbert, senior vice-president of the Waterways Council, told The Independent: “We have never had an extended closure on the Mississippi. This is the height of the export shipping season. From now until March, more than 60 per cent of the nation’s grain moves on the inland waterway, bound for export. The impacts are going to be enormous, not only to barge and towing operators, but also to farmers, shippers and producers, and those who rely on the waterways.”
The worst-affected stretch runs 180 miles from St Louis, Missouri, south to Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi is met by the Ohio River. A depth gauge at Thebes, Illinois, measured just 6ft last week; the National Weather Service forecasts a drop to 3ft by Thursday, and as low as 2ft before February. The minimum depth for the safe passage of most barges is 9ft.
Responsibility for keeping the shipping channel open falls to the US Army’s Corps of Engineers, which said the drought-induced crisis was “equal to or worse than any of the past five decades”.
Last year’s drought could herald further disruption. Ms Colbert said: “Whether or not anyone believes in climate change, it is worth looking at how the Corps of Engineers manages all the rivers it is responsible for. Their operating manual was last updated in the 1940s, so it doesn’t take into account the changes we’ve seen.”
Climate change is set to be a big story in 2013 whether the denialists like it or not, however. 2012 was a disaster of a year, weather-wise, with 11 billion dollar events. The Mississippi drying is only the first such event of 2013.