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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Global analysis of river systems: from Earth system controls to Anthropocene syndromes. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 358, 1935–1955 (2003)

  2. 2.

    & The response of the lower Mississippi River to river engineering. Eng. Geol. 45, 433–455 (1996)

  3. 3.

    & Flood enhancement through flood control. Geology 29, 875–878 (2001)

  4. 4.

    , , , & Flood trends and river engineering on the Mississippi River system. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L23404 (2008)

  5. 5.

    , & Analysis of the impacts of dikes on flood stages in the Middle Mississippi River. J. Hydraul. Eng. 139, 1071–1078 (2013)

  6. 6.

    Divine Providence: The 2011 Flood in the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (Mississippi River Commission, 2012)

  7. 7.

    Fishery Resources, Environment, and Conservation in the Mississippi and Yangtze (Changjiang) River Basins Ch. 11 (American Fisheries Society, 2016)

  8. 8.

    & Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global sea-level rise. Nat. Geosci. 2, 488–491 (2009)

  9. 9.

    Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Louisiana's Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast (Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, 2017)

  10. 10.

    et al. Episodic sediment accumulation on Amazonian flood plains influenced by El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Nature 425, 493–497 (2003)

  11. 11.

    et al. Fluvial sediment supply to a mega-delta reduced by shifting tropical-cyclone activity. Nature 539, 276–279 (2016)

  12. 12.

    , & The Atlantic multidecadal oscillation and its relation to rainfall and river flows in the continental US. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 2077–2080 (2001)

  13. 13.

    , & Variations in North American summer precipitation driven by the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. J. Clim. 24, 5555–5570 (2011)

  14. 14.

    & Interactions between the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, El Niño/La Niña, and the PNA in winter Mississippi valley stream flow. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, (2003)

  15. 15.

    & El Niño increases the risk of lower Mississippi River flooding. Sci. Rep. 7, (2017)

  16. 16.

    Paleoflood hydrology and extraordinary flood events. J. Hydrol. 96, 79–99 (1987)

  17. 17.

    et al. Cahokia’s emergence and decline coincided with shifts of flood frequency on the Mississippi River. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6319–6324 (2015)

  18. 18.

    , , , & Lower Rhine historical flood magnitudes of the last 450 years reproduced from grain-size measurements of flood deposits using end member modelling. Catena 130, 69–81 (2015)

  19. 19.

    & Signatures of high-magnitude nineteenth-century floods in Quercus macrocarpa tree rings along the Red River, Manitoba, Canada. Geology 28, 899–902 (2000)

  20. 20.

    Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River (Mississippi River Commission, 1945)

  21. 21.

    & A multi-century tree-ring record of spring flooding on the Mississippi River. J. Hydrol. 529, 490–498 (2015)

  22. 22.

    , & The role of floodplain restoration in mitigating flood risk, lower Missouri River, USA. Geomorphic Approaches to Integrated Floodplain Management of Lowland Fluvial Systems in North America and Europe 203–243 (Springer, 2015)

  23. 23.

    Decreased rates of alluvial sediment storage in the Coon Creek Basin, Wisconsin, 1975–93. Science 285, 1244–1246 (1999)

  24. 24.

    et al. Dynamics and distribution of natural and human-caused hypoxia. Biogeosciences 7, 585–619 (2010)

  25. 25.

    et al. The National Elevation Dataset. Photogramm. Eng. Remote Sensing 68, 5–32 (2002)

  26. 26.

    , , & New anthropogenic land use estimates for the Holocene; HYDE 3.2. Earth Syst. Sci. Data Discuss. (2016)

  27. 27.

    et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 108, 4407 (2003)

  28. 28.

    , , , & A multiproxy index of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, AD 1525–1982. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 114, D05106 (2009)

  29. 29.

    & A history of ENSO events since AD 1525: implications for future climate change. Clim. Change 92, 343–387 (2009)

  30. 30.

    et al. Interdecadal modulation of El Niño amplitude during the past millennium. Nat. Clim. Chang. 1, 114–118 (2011)

  31. 31.

    , & A unified proxy for ENSO and PDO variability since 1650. Clim. Past 6, 1–17 (2010)

  32. 32.

    et al. Evaluating the hydrological cycle over land using the newly-corrected precipitation climatology from the Global Precipitation Climatology Centre (GPCC). Atmosphere 8, 52–69 (2017)

  33. 33.

    et al. Improved historical temperature and precipitation time series for U.S. climate divisions. J. Appl. Meteorol. Climatol. 53, 1232–1251 (2014)

  34. 34.

    Mississippi River Commission. Results of the Discharge Observations Mississippi River and its Tributaries and Outlets, 1838–1923 (Mississippi River Commission, 1925)

  35. 35.

    Mississippi River Commission. Results of the Discharge Observations Mississippi River and its Tributaries and Outlets, 1924–1930 (Mississippi River Commission, 1931)

  36. 36.

    , & A new longitudinal approach to assess hydrologic connectivity: embanked floodplain inundation along the lower Mississippi River. Hydrol. Processes 27, 2187–2196 (2013)

  37. 37.

    , & Overbank sedimentation from historic ad 2100 flood along the lower Mississippi River, USA. Geology 45, 107–110 (2017)

  38. 38.

    & Flexible paleoclimate age–depth models using an autoregressive gamma process. Bayesian Anal. 6, 457–474 (2011)

  39. 39.

    & The calculation of lead-210 dates assuming a constant rate of supply of unsupported 210Pb to the sediment. Catena 5, 1–8 (1978)

  40. 40.

    & Quartz fast component optically stimulated luminescence: towards routine extraction for dating applications. Radiat. Meas. 89, 27–34 (2016)

  41. 41.

    , , & A tree-ring based reconstruction of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation since 1567 ad. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L12205 (2004)

  42. 42.

    & Statistical and Probability Analysis of Hydrologic Data, Part III: Analysis of Variance, Covariance and Time Series (McGraw-Hill, 1964)

  43. 43.

    Interagency Advisory Committee on Water Data. Guidelines for Determining Flood-Flow Frequency: Bulletin 17B of the Hydrology Subcommittee (United States Geological Survey, 1982)

Download references


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


  1. Search for Samuel E. Munoz in:

  2. Search for Liviu Giosan in:

  3. Search for Matthew D. Therrell in:

  4. Search for Jonathan W. F. Remo in:

  5. Search for Zhixiong Shen in:

  6. Search for Richard M. Sullivan in:

  7. Search for Charlotte Wiman in:

  8. Search for Michelle O’Donnell in:

  9. Search for Jeffrey P. Donnelly in:


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.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    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.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

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

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.