The Mississippi River Has Run Backward Multiple Times

By Jeff Kelly on Saturday, January 4, 2014
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“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” —Mark Twain, “Eruptions”

In A Nutshell

The Mississippi River is one of the largest, most powerful rivers in the world. It flows more than 3,800 kilometers (2,350 mi) from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, and stretches to as many as 17 kilometers (11 mi) wide at one point. That’s a lot of water being transported on a daily basis. And more than once in its history, it has actually flowed backward as a result of natural disasters.

The Whole Bushel

One of the largest, most powerful, and most famous rivers in the world is the Mississippi River. From its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mighty Mississippi stretches 3,800 kilometers (2,350 mi) and moves millions of gallons of water on a daily basis, with a flow rate of 3,540 cubic meters per second (125,000 cubic feet per second) being moved in New Orleans alone.

The river has become one of the most essential waterways not just in America, but in the entire world. After all, approximately 78 percent of the world’s feed grains and soybeans are produced from the waters of the Mississippi. So imagine a river that powerful, that huge, and that important suddenly reversing its flow. It seems almost impossible, doesn’t it?

As a matter of fact, not only has it happened, but it has actually occurred more than once in the past 200 years. All of these happenings, of course, are the result of natural disasters, because even when it comes to something as large and powerful as the Mississippi River, Mother Nature likes to flex her muscles a little now and then just to show the world who is still in charge.

The first time the Mississippi reversed its flow was in 1812, when a massive earthquake in the region caused a “fluvial tsunami” in the river, sending the water straight back where it came from. The actual seismic activity began at the tail end of 1811, but it wasn’t until the new year began that the water started going in the opposite direction.

Since 2005, the Mississippi has actually reversed flow twice. The first time was during Hurricane Katrina, when the flow was reversed and it was an astonishing 4 meters (13 ft) higher than usual. However, the reverse flow of the river only lasted a relatively short time, just a few hours.

In 2012 the Mississippi ran backward for an incredible 24 hours in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac. The force from the hurricane was so strong that the river started moving water at a rate of 5,200 cubic meters per second (182,000 cubic feet per second) in the wrong direction. In case you’re keeping track, that’s a more powerful flow than the Mississippi typically reaches when going downstream, and the increased power is pretty significant.

At the end of the day this just serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that Mother Nature is never, ever to be trifled with.

Show Me The Proof

Earthquake causes fluvial tsunami in Mississippi
BBC News: Hurricane Isaac ‘drove Mississippi River backwards’
National Park Service: Mississippi River Facts