Letter | Published:

Climatic control of Mississippi River flood hazard amplified by river engineering

Nature volume 556, pages 9598 (05 April 2018) | Download Citation


Over the past century, many of the world’s major rivers have been modified for the purposes of flood mitigation, power generation and commercial navigation1. Engineering modifications to the Mississippi River system have altered the river’s sediment levels and channel morphology2, but the influence of these modifications on flood hazard is debated3,4,5. Detecting and attributing changes in river discharge is challenging because instrumental streamflow records are often too short to evaluate the range of natural hydrological variability before the establishment of flood mitigation infrastructure. Here we show that multi-decadal trends of flood hazard on the lower Mississippi River are strongly modulated by dynamical modes of climate variability, particularly the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, but that the artificial channelization (confinement to a straightened channel) has greatly amplified flood magnitudes over the past century. Our results, based on a multi-proxy reconstruction of flood frequency and magnitude spanning the past 500 years, reveal that the magnitude of the 100-year flood (a flood with a 1 per cent chance of being exceeded in any year) has increased by 20 per cent over those five centuries, with about 75 per cent of this increase attributed to river engineering. We conclude that the interaction of human alterations to the Mississippi River system with dynamical modes of climate variability has elevated the current flood hazard to levels that are unprecedented within the past five centuries.

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We thank S. Colman, S. G. Dee, K. Lotterhos, S. P. Muñoz, W. H. J. Toonen, G. C. Trussell and T. Webb III for discussion and comments, and M. Besser, D. Carter, J. Elsenbeck, K. Esser, A. LaBella and J. Nienhuis for field and/or laboratory assistance. Seed funding for this project was provided to L.G. and J.P.D. by the Coastal Ocean Institute of WHOI. Support for S.E.M. was provided by the Postdoctoral Scholar Program of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Additional support to S.E.M. and L.G. was provided by the Ocean and Climate Change Institution of WHOI. Support for M.D.T. and J.W.F.R. was provided by the US National Science Foundation Geography and Spatial Science Program (award number BSC1359801). This is contribution no. 362 from the Marine Science Center at Northeastern University.

Author information


  1. Department of Geology & Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Samuel E. Munoz
    • , Liviu Giosan
    • , Richard M. Sullivan
    • , Charlotte Wiman
    • , Michelle O’Donnell
    •  & Jeffrey P. Donnelly
  2. Marine Science Center, Department of Marine & Environmental Sciences, Northeastern University, Nahant, Massachusetts 01908, USA

    • Samuel E. Munoz
  3. Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA

    • Samuel E. Munoz
  4. Department of Geography, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35401, USA

    • Matthew D. Therrell
  5. Department of Geography and Environmental Resources, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois 62901, USA

    • Jonathan W. F. Remo
  6. Department of Marine Sciences, Coastal Carolina University, Conway, South Carolina 29526, USA

    • Zhixiong Shen
  7. Department of Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 7ZT, UK

    • Zhixiong Shen
  8. Department of Oceanography, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77840, USA

    • Richard M. Sullivan


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L.G. and J.P.D. initiated the project. S.E.M., L.G., M.D.T., J.W.F.R., Z.S. and J.P.D. conceived the ideas, designed the study and interpreted the results. M.D.T. provided dendrochronological data. J.W.F.R. provided historical discharge and geospatial data. Z.S. performed OSL dating. S.E.M., L.G., R.M.S., C.W. and M.O. collected sedimentary archives and/or performed laboratory analyses. S.E.M. wrote the manuscript with contributions from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samuel E. Munoz.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks P. Hudson, S. St George and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains additional descriptions of datasets and analyses used in the study, Supplementary Figures 1-16, Supplementary Tables 1-6 and additional references.

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    Supplementary Data

    This zipped file contains the palaeoflood datasets generated by this study.

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