The mouth of a river is hard to determine in cases where the river has a large estuary that gradually widens and opens into the ocean. The source of some rivers starting in farming areas can be difficult to determine, if the river is formed by the confluence of several farm field drainage ditches which only contain water after rain. Similarly, in rivers starting in a chalk area the length of the upper course which is dry varies with how high the water table is. How large a river is between source and mouth may be hard to determine due to issues of map scale. Small scale maps tend to generalize more than large scale maps. In general, length measurements should be based on maps that are large enough scale to show the width of the river, and the path measured is the path a small boat would take down the middle of the river.
Given, and despite, this ambiguity, the Nile has been determined to be the largest river in the world followed by the Amazon and the Yangtze. The Nile is a north-flowing river in North Africa. It is 6,650 km long. It has two major tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile is the source of most of the water and fertile soil in the system. The White Nile is longer and rises in central Africa beginning in Rwanda. The two rivers meet near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. The northern section of the Nile flows almost entirely through desert. Most of the ancient civilizations of the area were centered along the river’s banks. The Nile ends in a large delta that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.
The debate over which is the largest river in the world seems to be over for now. The Nile is 250 km larger than the Amazon. Both rivers have played important roles in the evolution of the civilizations that sprang up around them and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.