Visualizing the course of the Mississippi over millennia

From the 1944 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers geological survey: "600 miles of meandering river belts over tens of thousands of years...If you have any interest in getting your mind blown by creative data visualization, do yourself a favor and click here now to view the hi-res map in full."

The hi-rez files are ginormous:

1. Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River - Fisk, 1944 Report (197MB)
2. Oversized Plates - Fisk, 1944 Report (686MB)
3. Oversized Plates Rectified - Fisk, 1944 Report (369MB)

Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River (Thanks, Marilyn!)


    1. By constructing river levees all the way up to the Midwest, we kinda have made up its mind. Though, look up the story of the Old River Control Structure: it’s been wanting to change its mind again, ever since somebody decided it would be a good idea to blow up the biggest logjam ever a couple of centuries or so ago.

      The history of the lower Mississippi has been one of repeated ecological disaster due to short-sighted human actions being taken without full knowledge of the long-term consequences. If you’re interested more, I’d recommend reading John Barry’s _Rising Tide_.

      1. By constructing river levees all the way up to the Midwest, we kinda have made up its mind.

        You just keep believing that.

  1. If you like this and haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Edward R Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It’s a style guide for creating useful graphs that show the most data in the least space, and it’s full of awesome things like this. Highlights include a map of galaxy density in the sky that shows over six million data points in a readable way on a single page, and a map of Napoleon’s march towards and then retreat from Russia, which also graphs how, where and when his soldiers died and the temperature over time.

  2. Oxbows are so friggin cool. They’re an archaeological blessing and curse. At one time they reveal old strata by relatively new bank cuts, at the other time they wash away newer surface deposits. Other than Grant’s island hopping in the Western campaign of the War of Northern Aggression, one of the most famous historical oxbows, imho, is from a battle of the Jacksonian Indian Wars fought at Horseshoe Bend, cool place to visit.

  3. I’ve been looking at a lot of modern art lately at home, so when I saw this image I thought “Wow – I have no idea who did this, but it’s amazing.” Little did I know that it was a product of the good old Army Corps of Engineers. Get those guys an NEA grant, stat.

  4. Meander Belt. We should have our levees at their edge, and then stay out of the middle…

    1. Hey, speaking of having this printed.
      What’s the copyright on this? This would make a kick ass poster, but I don’t wanna run into any crap with the printers.

      1. Almost all U.S. government works are, by definition, in the public domain, so feel free to print away. (There are rare exceptions to the public domain rule like, for example, some NASA photographs.)

  5. Anyone with an interest in flood control on the Lower Mississippi should read John McPhee, The Control of Nature (1989). The first chapter talks about the Old River Control Structure and the problems that make the Mississippi River so hard to control. This chapter also appeared as an article in The New Yorker.

    Keep in mind that all solid land south of Cape Girardeau, MO, is fill from the ancient Mississippi and its tributaries. The Arkansas, the Red, the White, and most of the rivers in Louisiana and Mississippi are little more than slowly-moving swamps, at least until it rains.

    My conclusion is that the Mississippi is going to be captured by the Atchafalaya River and, ultimately there is nothing that the Corps of Engineers or anyone else can do about it.

  6. War of Northern Aggression? I suppose Rosa Parks fired the first shot of the last battle.

  7. I did research for a master’s degree in geology on river geomorphology (as it relates to tectonics… actually pretty different from this kind of thing). I don’t have much to add but in case anyone’s wondering, most published geomorphology stuff doesn’t look anywhere near as good as this.

    It’s a great field for visualization, though – I had fun coming up with ways to display my data. Unfortunately, a lot of the classic artistic aspects of geology are all but gone now that you can easily make clear diagrams in Adobe Illustrator with little effort and no artistic skill.

    There was an article in GSA Today a few months ago about this that had a couple of pages of cool drawings, diagrams, and maps from geological research from the “classic period” of the 30’s to the 70’s. It’s a great article.

  8. Aaaah my young days, floating on the broad and lazy stream, through sleepy Southlands, the myriad of bends and bows, in no hurry: on a lazy river!

    Lazy or no, I’m sure he knows something, this old man of a river, this mighty Mississippi:

    It HAS been too long since I’ve been down South. Sigh.

    Oops maybe a little OT with that last one…

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