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Mississippi River at Memphis expected to approach record low levels for the second year in a row

As of Friday, September 22th, the Mississippi River at Memphis was at -9 feet, nearing last year's record low stage of -10.7 feet.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For the second year in a row, the Mississippi River at Memphis is approaching record low levels. A relatively dry stretch of weather in Memphis and points upstream has led to the river level decreasing.

Low water levels, like what the Mississippi River at Memphis experienced last year, can cause issues for area travel and commerce including barge traffic.

Latest river levels and forecast

As of September 22, 2023, the Mississippi River at Memphis was at a stage of -9 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

The river reached a low point of -10.79 feet in October 2022. This was a new record low for the river, beating the previous record low of -10.7 feet in July 1988.

The Mississippi River is expected to continue to fall through the end of the month. That's when the river could approach the record low level set last October.

How can the Mississippi River level be negative?

The "zero" level on the gauge is arbitrary - meaning, for lack of a better term, it's random. This zero level was chosen hundreds of years ago and was never updated, even as the gauge was relocated and the bottom of the river channel changed.

Because of this, the zero level on the gauge isn't actually the bottom of the river. Even when the river level falls below zero on the gauge, the river is still 20-30 feet deep in the middle.

What causes the river levels to fluctuate?

In general, rainwater and runoff play a large part in changing our river level.

But, it's not necessarily rain in Memphis that will cause the river to rise here. Since the river is constantly flowing downstream, rain needs to fall north of Memphis in states like Illinois and Missouri to see our river level rise.

In spring, river levels typically rise as snow melts in the northern United States, with that water filtering into the river.

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