What’s the longest river in… what’s the biggest lake… where is the highest waterfall in the world. These are some of the types of questions you often find in quizzes, crosswords and other tests of knowledge. They are complicated by the question of measurement – are we talking deepest, highest, longest, greatest volume or what? The answer will change depending on exactly what is being asked. In this article we're going to start with rivers. So let’s dive in shall we?
It is commonly known that The Nile is the world’s longest river, at 4,100 miles (6,650 km) although not universally accepted. Some have argued that it’s actually the 2nd longest. The problem arises because although the mouth of the river where it reaches the sea is obvious, the source of a river can be problematic to ascertain, because river systems often spread out into many tributaries. The Nile ends as it flows into the Mediterranean Sea near Cairo, but tracking backwards it goes through Egypt and Sudan, but separates near the Sudanese capital Khartoum for form two major rivers, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile ends up in Ethiopia at its source. The White Nile however is longer, travelling through South Sudan and Uganda, briefly also skirting the Democratic Republic of Congo. Depending on who you believe, it either stops there at Lake Victoria, or carries on through Rwanda and ends up in Burundi. So if a quizmaster asks you what country the source of the Nile is in, they’re not being fair because no one can seem to agree!
The commonly accepted answer for the second longest river is the mighty Amazon in South America, the lifeblood of the Amazon Rainforest. Its length is put at 3,977 miles (6,400 km). Like the Nile, its source has been disputed and view have changed over time, but it is now thought to be the Mantaro River in Peru. The Amazon may – most of the time – lose out to the Nile as the longest river, but measured by volume of water, it is the undisputed king of rivers. At its mouth in Brazil, it discharges 300,000 cubic meters of water per second. The Nile, only manages a little less than 3,000 cubic meters per second. At its mouth, the Amazon is about 200 miles in width, mind boggling to imagine.
The third biggest river in the world, the Yangtze, might not be in the running for the top prize, but it is still only slightly shorter than the Nile and the Amazon, coming in at 3,915 miles (6,300 km). It is however the longest river in Asia and also the longest river to flow solely through one country, China. It originates in the Tanggula Mountain range in the Tibetan plateau, and flows out into the East China Sea near Shanghai. It was named the Yangtze by Westerners in the 19th century, which means “child of the ocean”. In China it is referred to as Chang Jiang, which means the “long river”.
The fourth biggest river is also possibly the hardest to spell! The Mississippi-Missouri river is actually two or three rivers (at least!). Total length is 3,710 miles (5,970 km). It’s enters the sea at the Gulf of Mexico in the US State of Louisiana, not far from New Orleans, although it splits into a number of different “distributaries” so enters the sea over quite a wide area. As you travel upstream, it is the Mississippi for most of its length, but then splits into two at St Louis. The Mississippi itself heads up into Minnesota, where it reaches its source at Lake Itasca. The other branch is the Missouri, which from St Louis heads through to its source in Montana (which becomes the Jefferson River, so technically the river system is the Mississippi-Missouri-Jefferson river). The Missouri extends 100km further the Mississippi, so if asked what the longest river in the US is, it is the Missouri.
To round out the top 5, we have the Angara River, in Siberia, Russia. It starts at Lake Baikal and empties out into the Arctic Ocean (incidentally, if you are wondering where the Yellow River is in all of this, it is sixth).
In our world tour of rivers, we’ve missed out Europe and Australia. They don’t quite warrant a seat at the top table, but do have some long rivers. The longest river in Australia is the Murray, which is 1,558 miles (2,508km) in length. It is sometimes lumped together with its longest tributary, The Darling River, making the Murray-Darling even longer.
Last but not least is Europe, and the longest river in Europe is the Volga. At 3,530 kilometres long, it is the 18th longest in the world. It flows entirely through Russia, starting in the Valdai Hills in Tver Oblast, and empties into the Caspian Sea.
Although the Volga is officially the longest river in Europe, many people probably don’t think of Russia as Europe (though a significant part of it is), so I’m going to include one more river. The second longest in Europe is the Danube. It runs for 1,770 miles (2,850 kilometres). It starts in the Black Forest region of Germany and passes through 10 European countries: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Moldova, Ukraine and Romania.
That’s it for rivers, next time we’ll look at lakes.