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What Is the Longest River in the World?

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The answer to the question “What’s the longest river in the world?” might sound simple—find the source, the mouth, and measure—but in between those steps are strange definitions, fractals, hydrology, and especially national pride. It’s an issue so complicated that several hydrologists contacted by Mental Floss explained that river length isn't even considered a useful measure anymore. So, what is the longest river in the world?

HOW LONG IS A RIVER?

According to Laurel Larsen, assistant professor at the University of California Berkeley’s geography department, “The length of a particular river is the longest possible along-thalweg continuous distance from the headwaters (1st order stream) to the mouth of a river.”

To unpack those terms, the thalweg is “the line connecting the lowest or deepest points along a stream bed or valley.” First order stream is more complicated. There are two major ways to classify stream order, but the most common is the Strahler method. In this method, streams without any tributaries entering—streams that are just starting out the river—are first order. When two first order streams join together they form a second order stream, and when two second order streams join they form a third order (but if a first order stream intersects with a second order, the main river stays a second order stream).

The source of a river then is considered to be the furthest distance to the source of a stream that has no inputs—although, in practice, this can be extremely difficult to determine. And it's not a perfect system. (For historical reasons, the source of the Mississippi is often treated separately from the Missouri, despite the conventional definition grouping them into one river system.)

As for the mouth? That’s also contentious. For some rivers, the mouth is relatively simple to determine. But for large rivers entering the ocean, like the Amazon, where the mouth is placed can make all the difference.

ARE WE GOING TO ANSWER THE QUESTION?

The longest river has generally been the Nile, with the Amazon coming in second. But in 2007 Brazilian scientists announced that a new analysis put the Amazon on top. They got this by identifying a new source, but more importantly a new mouth. Traditionally, the mouth of the Amazon has been located on the north side of Marajó Island. But this new report wrapped the river around the south side of the island to the Pará River and then out into the ocean.

What side of an island the mouth is on might not seem relevant, but Marajó Island is the size of Switzerland. The new source plus the new mouth gave a distance longer than the Nile.

This was controversial. The Pará River is usually associated with the Tocantins River, not the Amazon. And more recent studies have tended to agree that, although there is some Amazon water in it, the Pará is distinct from the Amazon. Which means that the current best guess for the longest river in the world is still the Nile.

But there’s another, more fundamental issue with measuring a river: What does length even mean?

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

The early 20th century mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson made the observation that Spain and Portugal disagreed on their border length. Spain said it was 987 km and Portugal maintained it was 1214 km. The disagreement wasn’t down to disputed territories or anything like that; Richardson explained that it was the length of the measuring stick. As the measuring stick gets smaller, it’s able to more accurately capture the curves and nuances of bends and curves in complex borders.

The same trick appears with rivers. Rivers meander and have small curves. And if you zoom in further, more little bends and twists might appear in the thalweg.

It’s called the coastline paradox—the length of something complex is basically impossible to determine because the length keeps increasing the smaller the measurement goes.

For both this reason and the inherent difficulties of determining length, several researchers have told Mental Floss that river length just isn’t something that particularly matters, and what is really important is drainage area, which is the area of land that contributes water to the river. Unlike river length, a few elevation measurements make this a much easier metric to calculate. And according to an article in Nature, using this metric, the Amazon is dramatically the largest river in the world, with a drainage area of 6.3 million square kilometers. If it were a country, the drainage basin would be the seventh largest in the world just behind Australia.

The Nile falls down to fifth, behind the Congo, the Mississippi, and the Ob. So in the measurement that matters to hydrologists today, the Amazon wins it.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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