Rivers of the World the Amazon River

About the Amazon river, one of the longest in the world, history, length, animal life, and tributaries.



The Amazon (the Portuguese Amazonas) River shares the distinction with the Nile of maybe being the world's longest river.

In 1953 the Amazon's true source was found to be a stream named Huarco, 17,188 ft. up in the Peruvian Andes. From Huarco's head to the South Atlantic mouth near Belem, Brazil, the Amazon flows for either 4,007 or 4,195 mi., depending on which tributaries in the delta are measured. The Nile is 4,145 mi. long (see below).

The Huarco eventually empties into the Maranon River; the Maranon becomes the Solimoes River at the Peruvian border; finally, when the Solimoes reaches its confluence with the mighty Negro River, it becomes the Amazon for the last 1,000 mi. The river flows easterly and rarely strays more than a couple of hundred miles from the equator. It widens to 4 and 5 mi. in places. Its maximum depth, at the Obidos narrows, is 200 ft.

The Amazon has about 15,000 tributaries and subtributaries, the largest being the 2,100-mi. Madeira River. Three other tributaries are over 1,000 mi. long. The Amazon's drainage basin, the world's largest, amounts to 2.7 million sq. mi. On the average, this giant river discharges over 3 1/2 million cu. ft. of water per second into the Atlantic; this outflow is so massive that water is fresh in the open sea for several miles. The width of the Amazon's mouth is what accounts for this great outflow, for the river moves very slowly, usually 2 to 3 mph, because the last 2,300 mi. of its journey are relatively level (only 350 ft. of fall), and the floodplains meander up to 30 and 40 mi. in some lower parts.

The original Amazon flowed west to the Pacific from almost clear across the South American continent, until the Andes heaved up 60 million years ago and completely turned the drainage around. The gradual tilting of the continent created an estuary at the mouth of the Amazon instead of the customary delta.

The river is hostile to humans. Heavy rainfall, crocodiles, anacondas, piranhas, impenetrable vegetation, floods, and pestilence make it nearly uninhabitable. Settlements are few and far between, generally located on high ground near the major confluences. The entire Amazon is navigable for river launches but only partly navigable for oceangoing ships. The leading port is Manaus, Brazil, a city of over 300,000 people located 1,000 mi. up the Amazon at its junction with the Rio Negro.

Francisco de Orellana navigated the Amazon by accident in 1541-1542, after Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco Pizarro's half brother, sent him down from the Andes to find food for their beleaguered expedition. Unable to get his boat back upstream, Orellana continued east and crossed the entire continent. His later reports of female warriors called Amazons--whom he had heard about from the natives but never seen--brought notoriety to his expedition and gave the river its name. The first white man to navigate the Amazon, however, was the Spanish explorer Vicente Pinzon, who sailed about 50 mi. upriver from the mouth in 1500, four decades before Orellana.

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