When Modeling the Mississippi River, a Supercomputer Won't Do

The Mississippi River—it’s a big deal, OK? The combined ports of South Louisiana and New ­Orleans move more cargo, ton for ton, than any other US port. So figuring out the Mississippi’s hydrodynamics—the way its water, silt, and sand ebb and flow—matters. Matters so much, in fact, that Louisiana has dropped $18 million on a 10,800-square-foot model of Big Muddy’s sinuous meanders. It’s made of 216 panels of high-density foam, carved to match mapping data down to a quarter-millimeter tolerance.

Sure, the Center for River Studies could have just simulated all this in a supercomputer, built from spreadsheets and algebra. And that’s typically what happens nowadays: IRL models of natural phenomena are the exception. But when you can watch in an hour how the river bottom could transform in the course of, say, a year—and directly observe the potential effects on navigation—the impact is more immediate.

“We can bring out students, politicians, and fishers who are tired of seeing PowerPoint or don’t believe computer models,” says civil engineer Clint Willson.

That’ll teach people what they can and can’t build (and where) along a waterway critical to the US economy but more and more subject to the severe effects of climate change.


This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.