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Lower Mississippi

River Dispatch

Vol 10 No 5d, Tuesday, May 20, 2014

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Paddling through Weather Extremes:

2014 National Climate Assessment

Global Warming and Challenging Conditions on the Big River

For the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River

www.rivergator.org 2014 by John Ruskey

Forward:

Wind storms, heat waves, rising sea levels, severe thunderstorms, torrential rainfalls, warm winters... How will they effect us paddlers on the big river? What might we expect from the constant tug of war between Zephyr and Boreas? What curve balls will come roaring across the Atlantic Islands from the Cape Verde Islands and West Africa beyond? How far will storm surges push up the mouth of the Mississippi? What will warmer winters mean for mosquitoes in the summer? What other possible circumstances do we need to be prepared for?

I’ve been noticing some worrisome trends while paddling the Lower Mississippi River in the past decade. I have also felt uncertain about how to connect them all, or how to describe them thoughtfully. The May 6th National Climate Assessment confirms some of our fears, but also allows us to become better prepared paddlers on the big waters of North America (and are most certainly applicable to any big waters anywhere in the world!)

We live in a changing world. It is incumbent upon the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River to address these issues and the best possible solutions to them for paddler. This is a good primer for anyone paddling the Lower Miss regardless of length of trip, but is especially applicable to long distance paddlers who are subjected to the extremes of nature by the duration of their exposure. Please note, this is a first draft being shared here. Please write me with any corrections or needed definitions. Lastly, any paddlers with similar experiences related to the below -- or any similar stories you are aware of -- please send and share! I might add to upcoming revisions. Paddler’s stories are the best teachers for those who follow.

Big River Intro:

Big river conditions are calm and serene about 75% of the time. But 25% of the time you’d better be prepared for the worst. With a little bit of advance preparation and foreknowledge you’ll be fine. Caught unawares and unprepared might end in disaster. (BTW: For a detailed description of all the big river conditions you should be prepared for go to the Safety section in the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi at www.rivergator.org.)

Here is a real-life scenario that any big river paddler might experience: A severe thunderstorm is approaching. You saw it on your smart phone radar. Or maybe you heard about it on your weather radio. Or maybe you knew it was coming by the high winds and blossoming thunderheads boiling over the treeline. Regardless, you’ll be glad that you got off the river, pulled your canoe well above water level, turned it over and tied it bow and stern to a tree, and located your campsite within a sandy knoll protected all around by scrubby willows. You stashed all your gear in your tent, or secured it somewhere by tying it down or placing a log other heavy object over it. You tied your tent to the willows surrounding. Maybe you used some sand anchors, filling a couple of drybags with sand and anchoring the corners of your tent. You ride out the storm and emerge afterwards unscathed. Your tent is intact. You didn’t lose any of your precious gear. Meanwhile the unsuspecting and unprepared canoeist on the other side of the island lost his canoe that he didn’t tie down and the winds blowed his tent over and scattered his gear over a mile-wide sandbar. He is thirsty, shivering, hungry, tired, and has no way to communicate with the rest of the world. He is hyporthermic. He is now in survival mode. He is a refugee on a remote river island. Eventually the storm passes, and he discovers you are camping nearby when he sees your glowing campfire. He comes in for help. Not everyone is so lucky.

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Disaster Map: This map summarizes the number of times over the past 30 years that each state has been affected by weather and climate events that have resulted in more than a billion dollars in damages. The Southeast has been affected by more billion-dollar disasters than any other region. The primary disaster type for coastal states such as Florida is hurricanes, while interior and northern states in the region also experience sizeable numbers of tornadoes and winter storms. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC).

2014 National Climate Assessment

The recently completed National Climate Assessment (May 6, 2014 by NOAA) has confirmed some of our experiences as paddlers on the Mississippi River with extreme water and atmospheric conditions. Over the past decade we’ve been seeing bigger changes of river water levels, stronger winds, more frequent severe thunderstorms, warmer winters, hotter summers, more poison ivy on the islands, and etc, and etc, and etc. Wind and severe thunderstorms have been especially troublesome to paddlers. High winds has directly led to at least one canoe being lost “at sea,” and was one of the determining factors in the death of at least one big river canoeist. Seasoned Memphis kayaker and race director Joe Royer decided to move the The Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race from its traditional May date back to June because of the highly erratic and oftentimes violent spring weather patterns. Although some of the assessment seems to contradict our experience as paddlers, most of it rings true, and heightens our concern for the future of safe paddling. As always, its best to be prepared for all eventualities on the big river. Like climbing the big mountain, you are very exposed on the big river, and when you fall, you fall a long, long ways.

The National Climate Assessment is completed every four years by more than 300 U.S. scientists to assess how the climate is changing in the U.S. The report was supervised and approved by a 60-member committee representing a cross section of American society, including representatives of two oil companies. I now feel confident I can speak freely as this assessment was backed up by the general cross-the-board bi-partisan consensus of meteorologists and climatologists. The 2014 Assessment lists hotter heat waves, more intense droughts, coastal inundation due to rising seas, heavier downpours, melting of glaciers and permafrost, bigger wildfires, worsening air pollution, stronger storms, increased diseases transmitted by insects, food, and water, and threats to mental health, as being of particular concern for Americans.

The NCA Overview flatly states:

“Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others.”

Introduction: Paddling through Weather Extremes

For our purposes of the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi, we have to ask the question: How will paddlers on the Lower Mississippi be effected by increasingly extreme weather? I have read the Assessment Overview for the Southeast Region, and picked out the categories most appropriate to our experience. These are presented below with a quote (in italics) from the Assessment, followed by an interpretation relating to the Lower Mississippi, and (where applicable) some practical solutions for paddlers.

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Frost-Free Seasons and Mosquitoes:

“The Southeastern Unites States will see 6 additional frost-free days in the coming decades. The climate in many parts of the Southeast and Caribbean is suitable for mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow and dengue fevers. The small island states in the Caribbean already have a high health burden from climate-sensitive disease, including vector-borne and zoonotic (animal to human) diseases. It is still uncertain how regional climate changes will affect vector-borne and zoonotic disease transmissions. While higher temperatures are likely to shorten both development and incubation time, vectors (like disease-carrying insects) also need the right conditions for breeding (water), for dispersal (vegetation and humidity), and access to susceptible vertebrate hosts to complete the disease transmission cycle. While these transmission cycles are complex, increasing temperatures have the potential to result in an expanded region with more favorable conditions for transmission of these diseases.”

More mosquitoes and poison ivy: Frost-free winters in the Deep South leads to increased bugs and noxious weeds in the summer. For paddlers the primary challenges will include mosquitoes and poison ivy. Poison Ivy recovers quickly from the winter cold and grows faster than any other vine in the Mississippi Valley. (Side note: Poison Ivy seems to favor a carbon-rich environment, another contributing factor and feedback loop in the global warming cycle). Other irritating insects that favor a frost-free winter include fire ants, no-see-ums, buffalo gnats and hornets.

Solutions: protect yourself from mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies with netting, clothing and bug spray. Carry remedies for all possible bug bites in your first aid kit. Know your allergies and those of your group and prepare accordingly. Learn what insects are common and remedies to their bites. Baking soda is effective for bee stings, for instance, but vinegar is best for hornets. If you think you’ve touched poison ivy, try the riverman’s remedy and rub any effected areas with mud and sand. The more you rub it with coarse muddy material the better this works. Poison ivy is like tar. You have to scour it off your skin. The other antidote is to leave the mud on your skin after scouring and let it dry. The drying, cracking and peeling mud will absorb all remaining poisons.

Sweating dilutes the effect of any bug juice. Light loose-fitting clothing such as bug shirts and pants might be the best all-around solution to mosquitoes. Especially for the long distance paddler who must suffer through weeks and maybe months of heat (when poisonous bug deterrents are more likely to be ingested and breathed in). The same kind of clothing is also good poison ivy protection.

Water:

The Southwest, Great Plains, and Southeast are particularly vulnerable to changes in water supply and demand. Changes in precipitation and runoff, combined with changes in consumption and withdrawal, have reduced surface and groundwater supplies in many areas. These trends are expected to continue, increasing the likelihood of water shortages for many uses. Increasing flooding risk affects human safety and health, property, infrastructure, economies, and ecology in many basins across the United States.”

Wetlands and water levels: As wetlands and overflow areas are cut off from the main channel of the Mississippi River, water levels respond to rainfall with increasingly extreme rates of rise and fall, especially after large storm systems move up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. The river at New Orleans used to be protected by a three foot levee. Nowadays it requires a thirty foot levee. In the previous century the river reacted slower to big rainfalls with the assistance of vast wetlands connected to the river. With their removal the river today responds quicker and is more sensitive to precipitation. The water that used to flow outwards into large catchment basins located throughout the valley (the New Madrid Floodway is an example of one of these), now remain in the main channel. The water not removed adds to the overall flow causing increased water volume, which in turn causes increased water speed and turbulence. This results in vast erosive destruction along the riverbank, and increased difficulty for any vessels plying the muddy waters. One hundred years ago a five foot change of water level in a week was unusual. In the past decade a Mississippi River rise of 20 feet in a week is not uncommon, and I have personally witnessed 30 foot rises. The river historically falls at a slower rate than it rises. But even the falls have been faster.

Solutions: For the paddler it’s important to choose a campsite well above water level during a rise, but also not too far inland in shallow waters during a fall (when your vessel might become trapped in a rapidly emerging sandbar). Extra vigilance is needed in securing your vessel. I know of at least one paddling team who lost their canoe due to rising water. And I know one paddler who was awoken in the wee-wee hours with the rising water coming in the door of their tent, and into his sleeping bag (this was me!).

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Rainfall:

“Heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades. Largest increases are in the Midwest and Northeast. Increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for all U.S. regions.”

Increasing turbulence: Heavy rainfall events will only add to the already increased volatility of the Mississippi Valley due to wetland removal. Heavy rainfall in the Mississippi Valley will lead to faster rises and falls. The river will become increasingly turbulent and chaotic as larger changes in river volume over shorter periods of time come barreling down the Mississippi Valley. This will be especially true in any passes and runouts leading to backwater places like oxbow lakes. During a fast rise turbulent rapids with standing waves or crashing foaming waves will form in the narrows of some of the oxbow lakes, such as the Tunica Runout, Trotter’s Pass, DeSoto Lake Chute, Possum Chute, and Mellwood Lake Chute. It will be a fun ride for adrenaline junkies and expert paddlers. But it will also become more challenging for moderate paddlers, and increasingly dangerous for everyone. Snags, strainers and sawyers abound. A flipover might mean being flushed into a flooded forest miles from dry land.

Solutions: In general paddlers will have to paddle harder, tougher, and be more prepared for violent water conditions. Paddlers will be subject to bigger and stronger whirlpools, faster and more unpredictable eddy lines, and more explosive boils. Everyone will enjoy a faster ride downstream, but a harder paddle upstream. Ferry crossings will have to be made quickly and strongly. Bridge piers, buoys and dock pilings will become even more dangerous to negotiate as they are surrounded by exploding turbulence, particularly on their downstream sides. Watch out for buoys that get pushed underwater and periodically explode upwards. More and more buoys will be dislodged from their one ton anchors, and towboats will be seen wandering more widely as they search for safe passage. Towboats will move faster downstream and slower upstream (in relation to someone standing on the bank). Expect more towboat/bridge collisions and subsequent shutdowns of the river (to commercial traffic).

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Severe Storms:

“Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity since the 1950s, and their tracks have shifted northward over the United States. Other trends in severe storms, including the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds, are uncertain and are being studied intensively.”

Regardless of frequency or intensity, paddlers on the Lower Mississippi River feel the effects of severe thunderstorms stronger than those on land because of the open nature of the face of the river and the giant towhead islands. There is nothing to slow down the front lines winds that precede storms. Always keep a vigilant eye on the horizon for any approaching thunderstorm activity.

A lot can be learned in the stories of other canoeists and kayakers, in this case from paddlers encountering high winds and severe thunderstorms on the Lower Mississippi:

Losing tents in front line winds: I’ve been with groups where we had all of our tents blown down and sent tumbling hundreds of yards across the sandbar. Once during a severe thunderstorm near New Madrid, Missouri. This storm was amongst the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. The rain fell sideways. We lost twelve tents to the wind. We recovered most of them, but my tent poles are still bent, and one tent was tossed in our campfire and partly burned. We had to recover in the darkness. Some people got eaten up by mosquitoes. Another time there was no storm in the forecast. We were on Prairie Point Towhead above Helena. A strange squall line appeared from the north. It crossed the river and dismantled our unprotected campsite in the first blow. I remember getting mad when it blew over an enamel cup of wine I was getting ready to enjoy after the long day of paddling. We chased tents almost a mile before they came to rest against the treeline at the edge of the big sandbar. The wind continued unabated all night long as we huddled near the fire. No one attempted to resurrect their tent, even though it dipped down into the mid 30s.

Losing a canoe in the wind: Long distance canoeist Max Karpov was camped near mile 701 in an open spot along a sandbar island that accumulates around the Porter Lake Dikes. He was almost directly opposite the Tunica Riverpark Museum, and the Fitzgerald Casino, but he could have been on a separate continent so far removed are these islands from civilization. Sometime in the middle of the night high winds kicked up out of the North and caught Max unawares. He awoke the next morning to discover his canoe nowhere to be found. He hadn’t thought it necessary to tie up the night previous. Max was another lucky victim of high winds. He was plucked off the sandbar wilderness by a Fish and Game patrolman. And his canoe was rescued by the next long distance paddlers in the vicinity, Lucas and Nathalie (and their intrepid puppy-dog Tischer from the Paddle in Hand Expedition). Lucas and Nathalie found it washed up eleven miles downstream at the top end of Mhoon Bend. I assisted in the canoe rescue. It was obviously dragged some distance by the wind across rock, rip-rap or revetment, and a seat was ripped out. But otherwise it was intact.

Kayaking in the wind: Another time I was kayaking solo along the edge of a powerful storm when it suddenly jumped over the river and blew me over. I ejected and took refuge amongst some stubby mature willows where 2-3 foot crashing waves lashed the shoreline. Several of the trees blew over in the front line winds, fortunately none on top of me. A small tornado passed nearby with this one. Most recently (April 2014) we were approaching our intended camp behind an island not far above Natchez. A molted blue/black/white layered storm front coalesced over the entire length of the Western horizon and then crossed the river at a strange perpendicular, making small water spouts jump up in its path sucking river water in small splashes of swirling spray. The kayaker in our group was forced to turn into shore and then eject in the growing trains of crashing waves against the shoreline. I couldn’t turn the 30-foot long voyageur canoe I was piloting until everyone portside held water and everyone starboard paddled double time forward. A dozen trees were pushed over like blades of grass before a weed-whacker. Again, the kayaker got lucky and missed being hit by falling trees. Forty eight hours passed before that cold front blew itself out and the calm returned. Long distance kayaker Rod Wellington was paddling down the Missouri River late in December of 2012 when a storm front packing blizzard slammed him broadsides in an open riverside camp on a sandy bluff. In Rod’s own words: “I awoke to find my 17’ sea kayak partially covered in a mix of drifted snow and sand on the barren banks of the Missouri River near Jefferson City, Missouri. I had just spent 40 hours holed-up in a small, two-person tent (visible as a little green mound to the left of the boat), braving my way through a vicious winter storm that blasted the area with sideways snow, 50mph winds and temperatures in the single digits. With my video camera inoperable due to the frigid temps, and fingers too numb to hold a pen, I gave up the idea of documenting my besieged state and instead, with the help of earplugs, was able to catch up on some much-needed sleep.”

Losing a life in the wind: But not everyone is so lucky. High winds and oncoming severe thunderstorms are no laughing matter. Some wind-related accidents have resulted in tragedy. Some have resulted in paddler’s deaths. Ten years ago two long distance canoeists were paddling downstream in the final days of their 3-month Mississippi River top-to-bottom expedition. They were between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the very busy and very industrial Chemical Corridor, also known as the War Zone or Cancer Alley. No one knows exactly what happened, because they were no survivors. High winds forced them to paddle over the top of a long line of fleeted barges, which are common to the area. Their canoe flipped under the rake end of the topmost barge and the paddlers were never seen again. A sobering story for any paddler to imagine. More recently, in March 2010, two paddlers left downtown Memphis in a canoe, crossed the main channel to the Hopefield Dikes and flipped over near the Arkansas shore. It was a blustery day with wind gusts up to 30 mph out of the south. Hopefield is the series of dikes below Loosahatchie Bar which extends under the M Bridge. The channel narrows in this area between the bridges and become a wind tunnel in strong south wind. As the canoeists crossed the river the wind picked up and the main channel quickly filled with choppy 2-3 foot crashing haystacking waves and possibly higher in turbulent places or after the passing of any upstream tows. The river was typically cold for early spring, probably in the 40s. Neither men were wearing wetsuits, although one had his life jacket on. One man was able to swim to shore, the other never made it.

Final Warning Note: Inaccuracies in wind predictions: assume the worst when listening to the weather report. Add on 5-10mph to any predictions. The wind often seems to be stronger on the river. Also, meteorologists are very slowly catching up to the new weather conditions and patterns being created as result of global warming. The old computer models are sometimes inaccurate. Old weather patterns across the Deep South (and elsewhere) might be going obsolete.

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Hurricanes:

“The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain. Hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.”

Hurricanes often get in the way or alter the plans of Lower Mississippi River paddlers. In the Fall of 2008 Kristian Gustavson had to abandon his solo Lower Mississippi River canoe expedition at Baton Rouge due to the life-threatening conditions created by Hurricane Ike, even though its landfall was hundreds of miles away in Texas. Long distance paddlers who leave the headwaters in early to mid Summer find themselves butting heads more and more frequently with oncoming hurricanes. Most expeditions require 3 months from Lake Itasca to the Gulf. That puts most long-distance paddlers square into the June 1st to Nov 30th hurricane season. Hurricane season is warming up just as they are paddling down the Lower Miss towards the Gulf of Mexico. Late season expeditions might encounter the tail end of hurricane season, which typically runs through November, and now might be sliding into December.

Solutions: You can’t plan for it, but you can be prepared. Even the best computer forecasting models have trouble deciding a hurricane’s route from day to day. It’s kind of like rolling dice. Follow your expedition plan until the winds get too high or the hurricane is clearly headed your way. In the case of an oncoming hurricane your best course of action is to carry a weather radio and stay tuned to latest daily forecasts. Paddle until the wind gets too strong. A good threshold to use is 20-25mph winds. Go to shore if the winds are gusting to 25mph and stay there until they die down. Impatience will be your worst enemy. Monitor weather radio. Seek inland shelter over the levee if hurricane landing is imminent. Remember, the most dangerous aspect of most hurricanes is not their winds, but the storm surge. The Mississippi River was made to run backwards at New Orleans in 2009 Hurricane Katrina, and the storm surge was 12 to 15 feet.

Paddlers approaching Baton Rouge or New Orleans: Avoid this stretch of river entirely if there are any hurricanes in the region. Ditto for anyone using the Atchafalaya River outlet. You could become stranded if you proceed below New Orleans and a hurricane is making landfall in the Gulf States region. Be particularly leery of hurricanes making landing in Texas or Western Louisiana. Florida and Alabama hurricanes in general have less effect on the mouth of the Mississippi than Texas hurricanes the same distance away from the Mississippi because of their counter-clockwise spin. The strongest winds and hence the biggest storm surges are always found in the northeastern quadrant of Gulf hurricanes, ie: hurricanes making landing west of the mouth of the Mississippi.

Extreme Weather: the “Warming Hole” of the Southeast:

“Heat waves have become more frequent and intense, especially in the West. Cold waves have become less frequent and intense across the Nation. There have been regional trends in floods and droughts. Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense, and cold waves less intense everywhere. The Southeast region warmed during the early part of last century, cooled for a few decades, and is now warming again. The lack of an overall upward trend over the entire period of 1900-2012 is unusual compared to the rest of the U.S. and the globe. This feature has been dubbed the “warming hole” and has been the subject of considerable research, although a conclusive cause has not been identified.”

For paddlers: This “warming hole” seems to describe our experience on the Lower Miss. Especially with the winter of 2013/2014, and cool spring 2014 during which repeated cold fronts (the polar vortexes) dove deep into the Mississippi Valley and slapped us silly. We are a hole of coolness in a world of global warming, a localized anomaly. The entire Middle/Lower Mississippi Valley from St. Louis down often acts like a conveyor belt for weather patterns, so whatever’s happening in the Illinois Plains or the Pawnee Hills, such as an arctic cold front, will continue sliding southwards unchecked until it hits the warm humid atmosphere hovering over the Gulf of Mexico. Ditto for the powerful warm fronts that push northwards out from the Gulf. There are no physical barriers to direct their flow (like the Rocky Mountains to the West) and nothing seems to slows them down until they push up the Mississippi Valley up to the Great Lakes or the Appalachian Mountains.

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Extremes of Heat:

“Temperatures are projected to rise another 2°F to 4°F in most areas of the United States over the next few decades. In the Southeast there have been increasing numbers of days above 95°F and nights above 75°F, and decreasing numbers of extremely cold days since 1970. The Caribbean also exhibits a trend since the 1950s, with increasing numbers of very warm days and nights, and with daytime maximum temperatures above 90°F and nights above 75°F. Daily and five-day rainfall intensities have also increased. Also, summers have been either increasingly dry or extremely wet. For the Caribbean, precipitation trends are unclear, with some regions experiencing smaller annual amounts of rainfall and some increasing amounts. Although the number of major tornadoes has increased over the last 50 years, there is no statistically significant trend”

Paddlers & Heat: What is our most common accident on the Lower Miss? People often want to know. Is it snakebite? No. Is it lightning strike? No. Flipovers? No. What is it then? Our two most common and most debilitating accidents are sunburn and dehydration/heat exhaustion. And according to the climate assessment, it’s going to get worse. Canoeists and kayakers paddling down the Lower Miss in the heat of the summer should be prepared for hotter days and hotter nights. The latter is the more daunting. Almost anyone can cool down in the day by simply getting into the water and cooling down. But hot nights present an unexpected challenge for the paddler and could result in potentially more dangerous outcomes.

High Humidity: Triple digit daytime temperatures combined with high humidity make paddling the Lower Mississippi an extreme adventure in the mid-Summer. Heat index readings of 100+ are common. Human beings cool down through perspiration. The evaporative effect is reduced by humidity. The higher the humidity the hotter it feels because your natural cooling system becomes compromised. Also, in general the further downstream you go towards the Gulf of Mexico the higher the humidity. Sure, St. Louis can be humid. And yes the Deep South is usually worse. But the humidity encountered as you approach the Gulf of Mexico wraps around like a steamy heat blanket that nothing seems to soothe. On the worst days it’s like an all-day sauna that you can’t leave. And it’s not much better after dark.

Hot Days: Paddlers on the big river are exposed to the full unmitigated onslaught of sunlight and layers of heat and haze, similar to being on the face of the ocean. Unlike smaller rivers, the Lower Mississippi offers none of the natural protection you might enjoy such as overhanging trees and canyon walls. The river becomes a desert. Paddle like a desert traveller: protect yourself from the sun and heat with wide brim hat and sun clothing. The best clothing is either loose-fitting sun shirt and pants, or tight fitting rash guard. As a swimmer I prefer the latter. The tight fitting shirt and pants make for better swim clothing, and you can periodically splash yourself with river water and enjoy up to an hour of the added cooling effect. Protect your eyes with sunglasses. In extreme cases wear sun protective gloves and socks.

Hot nights: The human body needs cool nights to rest and recover from the heat of the day. In the worst of heat spells, the night-time temps may not drop below 85. If you are laying in your tent sweating on a still-sweltering sandbar with no breeze, you might be deprived of much needed recuperation. You might loose valuable body hydration through an all night sweat. The next day your ability to proceed downstream safely and think clearly might be compromised by general heat malaise and lack of sleep. Instead of awakening refreshed and ready to go, you might be starting the day with increased heat sensitivity. Add on the common resulting emotions of anger, frustration, irritability and short temper: lost body fluids combined with poor judgement might lead to heat exhaustion. The worst case scenario is heat stroke.

Solutions: Keep yourself hydrated. Carry and Drink plenty of water. Add electrolyte solutions for lost salts. Wear sun-protective clothing and drench yourself frequently with river water. Below Baton Rouge you might need to carry double the amount of fresh water so that you can splash yourself with water not tainted by the petrochemical corridor Baton Rouge to New Orleans. On the sandbar pick a place where you will get maximum air flow (except of course in the event of oncoming severe thunderstorms). Pack a summer tent with lots of netting. When possible, don’t set up your tent until after sunset. Let the heat of sandbar vent out as long as possible before setting up tent, and it will feel much cooler when you get in. Undress and lay on top of your pad/sleeping bag until you cool down completely. Pack a portable battery-powered fan and use as necessary.

Heat exhaustion: If you are suffering from heat exhaustion, or you suspect one of your group is suffering from the same, you must seek rest and shade as soon as possible. Immediately splash water on the victim. Wet clothing has an instantaneous evaporative cooling effect. Go to shore and find some overhanging willows in a breezy place and rest for a day or two. No good shade anywhere? Make a sun shade with a tarp and your canoe or kayak on the edge of a sandbar. Get in the river and wallow in a shallow place for as long as you can stand it. Then get out and lay in the shade and drink plenty of fresh water. Sleep, read a book, write some letters or in your journal. Repeat for the remainder of the day. It will take hours to recover, maybe days in extreme cases. Don’t rush recovery.

What if you run out of water? Collect rain water off your tent or from your canoe. Collect morning dew. Carry a portable water filter or iodine tablets. If necessary boil and drink river water. Collect water from blue holes whenever possible, or other back-channel places where harmful substances are more likely to have settled or evaporated out. In worst case scenarios, it is better to drink contaminated water than deprive your body of fluids. You might get sick from polluted water. You might die from heat stroke.

Cardiovascular Challenges

“The negative effects of heat on human cardiovascular, cerebral, and respiratory systems are well established. Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, and Tampa have already had increases in the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95ºF, during which the number of deaths is above average. Higher temperatures also contribute to the formation of harmful air pollutants and allergens. Ground-level ozone is projected to increase in the 19 largest urban areas of the Southeast, leading to an increase in deaths. A rise in hospital admissions due to respiratory illnesses, emergency room visits for asthma, and lost school days is expected.”

New millennium Mississippi River paddlers should be prepared for increased respiratory problems, especially during summer months, and especially while paddling through the biggest megalopolises: St. Louis, Memphis. Be particularly careful while paddling through the industrial corridor Baton Rouge to New Orleans to Venice. Anyone with pre-existing respiratory conditions should be prepared for the worst. Concurrent with daytime heat and night-time heat, paddlers will be subject to 24-hour onslaughts of desultory atmospheric conditions including high ozone readings, high concentrations of carbonaceous compounds like carbon dioxide, and unusually high concentrations of other toxic by-products produced from industrial off-venting.

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Algal Blooms

“Climate change is expected to increase harmful algal blooms and several disease-causing agents in inland and coastal waters, which were not previously problems in the region.,,,, For instance, higher sea surface temperatures are associated with higher rates of ciguatera fish poisoning,, one of the most common hazards from algal blooms in the region. The algae that causes this food-borne illness is moving northward, following increasing sea surface temperatures., Certain species of bacteria (Vibrio, for example) that grow in warm coastal waters and are present in Gulf Coast shellfish can cause infections in humans. Infections are now frequently reported both earlier and later by one month than traditionally observed.”

For Paddlers on the Lower Miss: We have been witnessing increasing amounts of algae primarily in backwaters, harbors, and back channels, but also in the main channel of the river. Unfortunately blue holes have been becoming increasingly green, brown, and are often full of scuzzy algal growth. Whether this is due to nutrient overload, or warming trends, or both, is unknown. These backwater algal blooms have an overall net benefit in helping to clean nutrients out of the river, but are signs of a sick river and poor agricultural practices, and are unpleasant to behold. During highwater the nutrient-laden water overflows into back channels, swamps and wetlands and leads to algal blooms. The nutrients are consumed and transformed by the phytoplankton. Later when the river drops, the waters return to the main channel cleansed of nitrogen, phosphorus and other fertilizers. How effective is this cyclical system? It helps clean the river, no doubt. But it hasn’t stopped the annual Dead Zone from forming. Its effectiveness is being depressed by increasing wetland destruction. Clean blue holes are harder and harder to find. Paddlers who enjoy a refreshing swim at the end of a long river day will have more difficulty locating clean swim holes.

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Sea Level Rise and Storm Surges

“Climate change impacts, especially sea level rise and related increases in storm surges pulsing farther inland, will continue to exacerbate ongoing land loss already affecting Louisiana tribes. Four Native communities in Southeast Louisiana (Grand Bayou Village, Grand Caillou/Dulac, Isle de Jean Charles, and Pointe-au-Chien) have already experienced significant land loss. Management of river flow has deprived the coastal wetlands of the freshwater and sediment that they need to replenish and persist. Dredging of canals through marshes for oil and gas exploration and pipelines has led to erosion and intense saltwater intrusion, resulting in additional land loss. Due to these and other natural and man-made problems, Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of land in the last 80 years. This combination of changes has resulted in a cascade of losses of sacred places, healing plants, habitat for important wildlife, food security, and in some cases connectivity with the mainland. Additional impacts include increased inundation of native lands, further travel to reach traditional fishing grounds, reduced connections among family members as their lands have become more flood-prone and some have had to move, and declining community cohesiveness as heat requires more indoor time. Numerous other impacts from increases in temperature, sea level rise, land loss, erosion, subsidence, and saltwater intrusion amplify these existing problems.”

For us paddlers campsites below New Orleans will become even more limited. This is a difficult area to find landings and dry campsites anyway. High water increases the challenge. Rising sea levels might result in your only choice being the levee. Which will be uncomfortable and possibly unsafe. Everything else will be on the levee with you, including gators, snakes and fire ants. Also, the levee is officially no trespassing, and will be guarded day and night by levee patrols during flood season. As noted above, avoid this stretch of river if there are any hurricanes in the region! You could become stranded if you proceed below New Orleans and a hurricane is making landfall in the Gulf States region. As noted previously, Florida and Alabama hurricanes tend to have less effect on the mouth of the Mississippi than Texas hurricanes the same distance away from the Mississippi (because of their counter-clockwise spin). The strongest winds and hence the biggest storm surges are always found in the northeastern quadrant of Gulf hurricanes, ie: hurricanes making landing west of the mouth of the Mississippi.

Endnote:

This text will eventually be added to Safety section of the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River. You can visit the Rivergator which is under construction at www.rivergator.org for more reading about the Lower Mississippi specific to paddlers. This is the first draft. There will be be subsequent versions. Any p