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Navigation and Transportation

Drought impacts port and waterway transportation and supply chains, resulting in increased transportation costs. Higher temperatures that often coexist with drought can impact roads, airport runways, and rail lines.

Shipping Routes and Drought

This map shows major U.S. waterways that are navigable for transportation, alongside drought conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Waterway data is recorded by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 

This map shows U.S. interstates alongside drought conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Roadway data is recorded by Natural Earth. 

This map shows U.S. airports alongside drought conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Airport data is recorded by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

This map shows U.S. railways alongside drought conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Railway data comes from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 

U.S. Navigable Waterways

The color with the hex code #005ea2 identifies:
Major Rivers

U.S. Drought Monitor

The color with the hex code #ffff00 identifies:
D0
The color with the hex code #ffcc99 identifies:
D1
The color with the hex code #ff6600 identifies:
D2
The color with the hex code #ff0000 identifies:
D3
The color with the hex code #660000 identifies:
D4

U.S. Roadways

The color with the hex code #000000 identifies:
Interstates

U.S. Drought Monitor

The color with the hex code #ffff00 identifies:
D0
The color with the hex code #ffcc99 identifies:
D1
The color with the hex code #ff6600 identifies:
D2
The color with the hex code #ff0000 identifies:
D3
The color with the hex code #660000 identifies:
D4

U.S. Air Traffic

The color with the hex code #7fb135 identifies:
Airports

U.S. Drought Monitor

The color with the hex code #ffff00 identifies:
D0
The color with the hex code #ffcc99 identifies:
D1
The color with the hex code #ff6600 identifies:
D2
The color with the hex code #ff0000 identifies:
D3
The color with the hex code #660000 identifies:
D4

U.S. Railways

The color with the hex code #000000 identifies:
Major Railway

U.S. Drought Monitor

The color with the hex code #ffff00 identifies:
D0
The color with the hex code #ffcc99 identifies:
D1
The color with the hex code #ff6600 identifies:
D2
The color with the hex code #ff0000 identifies:
D3
The color with the hex code #660000 identifies:
D4
Last Updated  -  02/26/20
Last Updated  -  04/14/20
Last Updated  -  02/26/20
Last Updated  -  02/26/20
321,000
tons shipped by water so far in 2020
11.9 Million
tons shipped by truck so far in 2020
171,000
tons shipped by air so far in 2020
487,000
tons shipped by rail so far in 2020
Key Issues

Ports and Waterways

Drought reduces available water-based transportation routes and limits cargo-carrying capacity.

Pavement and Rail Lines

Higher temperatures that often coexist with drought can impact pavement performance, affecting roads and airport runways, and cause rail line buckling.

Subsidence

When water supplies are depleted in drought, increased use of groundwater can cause the ground to sink (called land subsidence). Subsidence damages infrastructure and can cause sinkholes.

Wildfires

Smoke from potentially drought-related wildfires can affect visibility severely enough to close roads and airports.

Drought Impacts on Navigation and Transportation

During drought conditions that result in low water levels on rivers and other waterways, port and water-borne transportation operations may be limited due to a reduction in available routes and cargo-carrying capacity, resulting in increased transportation costs. For example, the 2012 Great Plains drought closed the Mississippi River at least three times, costing an estimated $300 million per day that the river was closed to traffic.

Any increased shipping costs may be passed on to consumers, resulting in higher retail prices for goods. Alternative modes of transportation (such as rail or truck) may be available for some products, but it would be impractical to shift products such as Midwest grain to these modes of transportation.

To examine how drought can impact the flow of goods and services, NIDIS, the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), and other governmental and sectoral partners launched a multi-year study in 2018 to examine the potential impact of drought along the Mississippi River on economic activity associated with agricultural production, commercial river navigation, manufacturing, recreation, and tourism.

Drought conditions can affect more than just waterways. Higher temperatures that often coexist with drought can impact pavement, requiring state departments of transportation to allocate resources for repair. Airport runways are also vulnerable to extreme heat, which can cause asphalt to soften and deteriorate. Some airplanes themselves cannot fly in extremely high temperatures. While larger planes are able to operate in a wide range of temperature conditions, many smaller, regional aircraft cannot fly safely if temperatures exceed 118℉. Extreme heat can also cause rail lines to buckle (called “sun kinks”), causing derailments. When water supplies are depleted in drought, subsidence (the sinking of the ground) can occur as more groundwater is removed. This affects infrastructure, including roads, buildings, and water pipes, and can lead to the formation of sinkholes.

Drought also increases the risk of wildfire, the smoke from which can severely affect visibility and result in road and airport closures.

Drought Early Warning for the Navigation and Transportation Sector

Drought early warning is essential to prepare for and mitigate drought’s impacts on the navigation and transportation sector, such as reduced transportation routes and damages to infrastructure due to subsidence. The resources below are organized by the key components of a drought early warning system: (1) drought observation and monitoring; (2) drought planning and preparedness; (3) prediction and forecasting of drought; (4) communication and outreach to the public and affected sectors;  and (5) interdisciplinary and applied research on topics of concern to drought-affected sectors.

Related Content

Data & Maps | Temperature & Precipitation

Access current, historical, and forecasted information from this collection of foundational datasets and maps.

Data & Maps | Water Supply

Access datasets and maps for monitoring water supply.

Data & Maps | Fire

Smoke from wildfires can reduce visibility enough to close airports and roads. Access information on current conditions and outlooks for fire risk, potential, and occurrence.

By Sector | Manufacturing

During drought conditions, reductions in or interruption of the water supply can result in reduced plant productivity or even lead to closure of manufacturing facilities.