Using NASA satellite imagery, scientists have discovered that 23% of the water released from the mouth of the Mississippi River after the New Orleans floods subsided traveled into the Gulf of Mexico, around the Florida Keys, and into the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists can track the water flow using NASA’s MODIS satellites, together with data from “ocean surface drifters,” instruments resembling balloons that travel on the ocean surface. These all show the outflowing water as a dark plume stretching across the Mississippi Delta, around Florida and up to the Georgia coast.

“This is the first time we have been able to estimate the amount or volume of freshwater discharged and carried over such remote distances. By combining the very detailed data from MODIS with observations from ships, we got a three-dimensional view of the Mississippi plume,” says marine biologist Chuanmin Hu.

MODIS satellites reveal that 20 billion tons of Mississippi River water have reached the Florida Straits and Gulf Stream off the Georgia coast. This is about four times the volume of Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in Florida.

Hu says, “Mississippi River water may have some impact on marine life in remote delicate ecosystems like the Florida Keys. But we are still not clear about the potential impacts of pollutants and pesticides. Not all effects will be bad; in fact, some light dark water events might actually protect bottom ocean dwellers, like coral, by providing them with shade.”

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