Climatic control of Mississippi River flood hazard amplified by river engineering

Abstract

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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Figure 1: The lower Mississippi River and the Mississippi River basin in North America.
Figure 2: Instrumental and reconstructed flood frequencies and magnitudes of the lower Mississippi River.
Figure 3: Lower Mississippi River flood frequency and its relation to dominant modes of climate variability.
Figure 4: Attribution of the observed increase in flood magnitudes over the past five centuries.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Contributions

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samuel E. Munoz.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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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.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Location of Lake Mary, Mississippi (MRY) and sediment core (MRY2) used in this study.

Lake Mary is an oxbow lake that formed via neck cut-off of the lower Mississippi River in ad 177620 and is situated inside the modern floodway such that it continues to be inundated during overbank floods. Bathymetric contours (white) given in metres. Shaded relief shows relative topographic lows (dark shades) and highs (light shades) according to the National Elevation Dataset25.

Extended Data Figure 2 Location of False River Lake, Louisiana, and sediment core (FLR1) used in this study.

False River Lake is an oxbow lake that formed via neck cut-off of the lower Mississippi River in ad 172220 and is situated outside the modern floodway. Bathymetric contours (white) given in metres. Shaded relief shows relative topographic lows (dark shades) and highs (light shades) according to the National Elevation Dataset25.

Extended Data Figure 3 Location of Lake Saint John, Louisiana, and sediment core (STJ1) used in this study.

Lake Saint John is an oxbow lake that formed via neck cut-off of the lower Mississippi River in about ad 150020 and is situated outside the modern floodway. Bathymetric contours (white) given in metres. Shaded relief shows relative topographic lows (dark shades) and highs (light shades) according to the National Elevation Dataset25.

Extended Data Figure 4 Radiography, bulk geochemistry, grain size and chronology of core MRY2.

The age–depth model at right shows the median age probability (black line) and 1σ confidence intervals (grey shading), with 2σ confidence intervals on individual chronological controls.

Extended Data Figure 5 Radiography, bulk geochemistry, grain size and chronology of core FLR1.

The age–depth model at right shows the median age probability (black line) and 1σ confidence intervals (grey shading), with 2σ confidence intervals on individual chronological controls.

Extended Data Figure 6 Radiography, bulk geochemistry, grain size and chronology of core STJ1.

The age–depth model at right shows the median age probability (black line) and 1σ confidence intervals (grey shading), with 2σ confidence intervals on individual chronological controls.

Extended Data Figure 7 Relationships between peak annual discharge and normalized EM score for historical floods in sedimentary archives.

Scatterplots and linear regressions with 1σ prediction intervals relating normalized EM score (a measure of grain size) to peak annual discharge of historical flood events for (a) MRY, (b) FLR and (c) STJ. Peak annual discharge estimates are from the Mississippi River gauging station at Vicksburg. Calibration periods vary owing to site-specific factors discussed in the Methods and Supplementary Information. adj., adjusted.

Supplementary information

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. (PDF 2443 kb)

Supplementary Data

This zipped file contains the palaeoflood datasets generated by this study. (XLSX 22 kb)

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Munoz, S., Giosan, L., Therrell, M. et al. Climatic control of Mississippi River flood hazard amplified by river engineering. Nature 556, 95–98 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature26145

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