Here’s When the Mississippi River’s Currents Are Most Dangerous

Written by Taiwo Victor
Updated: August 10, 2022
Image Credit Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
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Have you ever wondered about swimming amidst the currents of the Mississippi River? Or have you ever imagined what kinds of creatures might lurk beneath its waters? The Mississippi River may be one of the most famous rivers in the Americas, the second-longest river in the North American continent, and its second-largest drainage system. The river also hosts a vast habitat diversity, hosting high levels of biological productivity. It is also one of the most significant commercial waterways in the world and a key fish and bird migration route in North America.

Long story short, the Mississippi River is among the most important water systems in the Americas. However, the river has also claimed many lives. With an average depth of 9 to 12 feet and the deepest point at 100 feet, it is not hard to picture why the river is also among the most dangerous to swim in. But why exactly is the river terrifying? And when are the Mississippi River’s currents the most dangerous? Below, we will explore the dangers of the Mississippi River and the worst time to swim in its currents.

Why is the Mississippi River Dangerous?

The strong currents of the Mississippi River make it dangerous.

Milen Mkv/Shutterstock.com

While there are plenty of reasons why the Mississippi River is dangerous for swimmers, the most common reason is its strong currents. As the world’s fourth-largest drainage area, the river covers 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces, flowing at a million cubic feet per second. This would be enough to fill up around six superdomes in just one second. Thus, the river’s current may be impressive but also hazardous.

The Coast Guard urges anyone traveling the Mississippi River to know the dangers of high water and strong currents. On the Mississippi River, higher than average water levels can result in strong, quick currents that carry a lot of trash and can put people at risk. Stronger than usual currents can produce rips and eddies in locations where they may not have previously existed, which can quickly draw a boat or a person into a hazardous scenario.

Despite its breathtaking grandeur, the Mississippi River is a dangerous place to be. It has a reputation for being dangerous for swimmers to survive and each year, people get injured or lose their lives in its waters. 

The Danger Beneath the Mississippi River’s Currents

Discover Why the Mississippi River Once Flowed Backward for 24 Hours Cover Image
The Mississippi River’s powerful water flow may kill a swimmer and completely demolish a small boat.

The Mississippi River’s strong currents are one of the causes of this highly perilous nature. The Mississippi River runs 2,350 miles, and the average flow rate or current varies along its extensive course. For instance, this river’s flow rate around New Orleans, 600,000 cubic feet per second, is one of its highest. That powerful water flow may kill a swimmer and completely demolish a small boat. In just one minute, the river’s horizontal flow can carry you down to the length of a couple of football fields. This river’s general stream presents enough risk to keep people out of the water. 

When Are the Mississippi River’s Currents Most Dangerous?

Mississippi river delta
The Mississippi River’s high-water season typically lasts from December to May.

EyeTravel/Shutterstock.com

Given the information above, it’s apparent that the Mississippi River is dangerous for people all year round. However, there are certain months or seasons where the river’s currents are much stronger and, thus, more dangerous. Generally, the water level in the Mississippi River rises in the spring as the melted snowpack from the north rush towards the river system, added by some rain. During this period, the river’s current is five times faster than in late summer. Because of the rising water level, the currents are more ferocious and hazardous. Additionally, it indicates a higher chance of floods.

The Mississippi River’s high-water season typically lasts from December to May, with the maximum river levels peaking between February and May. It’s a common misconception that this period is the only one with high water; however, it is known to occasionally happen between January and August. Episodes of high-water accelerated currents and shoaling can occur throughout the year. Large land areas drain into the river, and significant rainfall and snow melt in the spring may cause fast variations in the water levels, making long-term forecasts for the region uncertain.

In 2019, the Mississippi River had high-water levels until August. The Mississippi River basin experienced several occurrences including lost and tangled anchors and damaged moorings during the high-water period.

At What Points in the River Are the Currents Strongest?

Since the Mississippi River runs 2,350 miles long, it flows through different currents and crevices. Thus, it is not surprising that there are certain points where the water is more dangerous than the others. For instance, river currents are much stronger where the river narrows. Imagine holding up a garden hose and covering half of the hose’s opening with your thumb. You will notice that the water flow will speed up faster than when you weren’t covering the other half of the opening. This is because there is less space for the water to flow through, letting it spurt out more rapidly. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Other factors can pull you straight to danger when swimming in the river’s waters.

Which Parts of the Mississippi River Are Most Dangerous?

Another danger that awaits beneath the Mississippi River’s waters is undertows. Undertows happen when friction at the river’s bottom causes currents to slow down. At the water’s surface, the current is still moving fast, and the water turns into a corkscrew pattern at the junction of the two currents. The water’s swirling motion is severe in a large river like the Mississippi. As a result, surviving an undertow is challenging. Even on calm days, this spiraling activity may take place. Because they can swiftly drag a swimmer out to sea and make it challenging to swim back to shore, undertows are quite dangerous.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) advises that the safest action if you find yourself in an undertow is to unwind and float. Try not to swim against the undertow; you will only exhaust yourself. Instead, swim at an angle away from the shoreline until the undertow stops carrying you, and then swim back to land.

What Are Eddies, And Why Do They Create Whirlpools?

Another danger that awaits in the Mississippi River is eddy. When the main current of a river encounters an object, an eddy, or rotating current of water, is created. Eddies form behind things such as submerged trees or rocks. The water rushes around the rock or any obstacle and creates a pool behind it, resulting in a whirlpool that can drag things or people underwater.

Eddies might be a few feet wide or several miles across, and they can easily pull you down and entrap you underwater if you get caught in one. The National Park Service advises swimming across eddies rather than with them to escape them. Always be mindful of your surroundings and proceed with caution when swimming in any body of water because undertows and eddies can form even on calm days.

Other Dangers of the Mississippi River

Debris, Trees, Docks

The Mississippi River could seriously hurt a swimmer, kayaker, skier, and others even while wearing life jackets. Since the strong currents can sweep along debris and remnants of woods or other sharp and hazardous objects, swimming against its currents is difficult and risky. The fact that you could be suddenly thrown onto a dock, boat, tree, or any other floating object makes the situation considerably more hazardous.

The National Park Service asserts that when a swift current encounters an object, the water is forced up and over it. Therefore, the current will quickly sweep you away before you have a chance to grab onto it. 

Floods

Apart from the aforementioned, the Mississippi River floods are also fatally dangerous. Snowmelt and intense rainfall can cause abrupt flooding in the Mississippi River. Flooding can put anybody near a river in peril since the swiftly moving water can easily sweep away people, cars, and even buildings.

According to the National Weather Service, the most frequent natural disaster in the US is floods. Every year, river floods happen, and the number increases in the spring. According to National Weather Service records, the Mississippi River floods, on average, every three years. However, due to yearly weather variations, these numbers are always changing.

Pollution

One of the most polluted waterways in the country is the Mississippi River. Many things, such as industrial facilities, sewage treatment facilities, and agricultural runoff, are to blame for this pollution. Any water that drains from farms is referred to as agricultural runoff. Pesticides, herbicides, and other potentially hazardous chemicals may be present in this water. Another big source of contamination for the Mississippi River is sewage treatment facilities. Before discharging human sewage into the river, these facilities treat it. Still, some untreated sewage finds its way into the river.

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About the Author

For six years, I have worked as a professional writer and editor for books, blogs, and websites, with a particular focus on animals and finance. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games with friends.

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