What Happens When the Mississippi River Freezes Over?

Written by Megan Martin
Updated: September 11, 2023
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Have you ever wondered what would happen if the second-largest river in the United States froze over? It turns out you don’t have to wonder! Although it’s a rare phenomenon, there have been times when the Mississippi River had completely frozen over. In some instances, people were even able to walk across the river

Ready to learn what happens when the Mississippi River freezes over? Let’s dive in!

The Last Time the Mississippi River Froze Over

Because of the amount of human infrastructure on the Mississippi River, it doesn’t freeze over often. However, freezing over wasn’t uncommon in the early 20th century. It also wasn’t catastrophic, either.

That part can be a bit surprising. After all, with a major river like the Mississippi, it seems like any changes can completely alter how we live our lives, especially in the time before planes and cars were fully accessible. While the freezing of the Mississippi River did disrupt some travel, since only portions of it froze, there weren’t any vast negative effects. Once the weather cleared up — and thus warmed up — the Mississippi River thawed and melted before continuing to flow like it always has.

However, while the river is frozen, there are some interesting things that occur. First, while it is safe to walk on when frozen to a certain degree, it’s not exactly what you’d expect. Most notable is that the ice “sings.” While people were walking across the ice in the 1800s and the 1900s, the ice would echo certain high-pitched sounds back and forth, which could be heard above. 

Freezing was common in the earliest parts of the 20th century, as well as the end of the 19th century. Here, the water would freeze completely solid, enough so that people could walk across it. However, after the Alton Lock and Dam were completed, the amount of freezing decreased because of the new ability to manipulate the flow of water in certain areas. 

Freezing was common in the earliest parts of the 20th century and the end of the 19th century.

©Milen Mkv/Shutterstock.com

What’s It Called When the Mississippi River Freezes Over?

The Mississippi River actually has a fairly unique process when it freezes over. As a result, it also has a unique name! You see, when the Mississippi River freezes over, it’s called an ice gorge.

In this phenomenon, piles of ice form and stack on top of each other. It’s said that these stacks of ice can rival the height of a church steeple! In some areas, ice gorges can be as large as almost 1000 feet thick, although you won’t find these types of gorges near the Mississippi River. 

Mississippi River - New Orleans

When the Mississippi River freezes over, it’s called an ice gorge.

©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

Does the Mississippi River Freeze Over Often?

When the Mississippi River freezes, it doesn’t freeze all at once. Instead, certain areas of the river will completely freeze over. While this isn’t necessarily a common event, it isn’t all that rare either. In fact, it’s estimated that the Mississippi River froze over in St. Louis at least ten times between the years 1891 and 1938. 

Nowadays, however, you won’t hear about the Mississippi River freezing over often. This is because it doesn’t, especially because of human influence on the river. 

Mississippi River Marsh

Nowadays, the Mississippi River does not freeze over often.

©iStock.com/Jaimie Tuchman

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/juliannafunk

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About the Author

Megan is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is birds, felines, and sharks. She has been researching and writing about animals for four years, and she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in biology and professional and technical writing from Wingate University, which she earned in 2022. A resident of North Carolina, Megan is an avid birdwatcher that enjoys spending time with her cats and exploring local zoological parks with her husband.

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  1. Cambridge University Press, Available here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-glaciology/article/subglacial-gorge-la-gorge-du-guil-hautesalpes/4A47B30937277F5B890B9738A3EB073B
  2. History 101, Available here: https://www.history101.com/day-mississippi-river-froze/