Amazon Facts

Amazon Facts

Amaze (or bore) your friends and colleagues with some Amazon trivia. Who knows, it might even win you big bucks someday on a game show! The Amazon IS the world's greatest river. The Nile of Africa may be slightly longer, depending on how you measure each river, but for many other reasons the Amazon River is the undisputed title holder - the greatest river on the planet, in the solar system, and perhaps even in the Milky Way galaxy (at least no-one from planets orbiting Betelgeuse or Antares has yet provided convincing evidence that they have a bigger river on their planet!). Read on!

If size is important to you... The average discharge of water into the Atlantic Ocean by the Amazon is approximately 175,000 m3 per second, or between 1/5th and 1/6th of the total discharge into the oceans of all of the world's rivers! This discharge is 4-5 times that of the Congo River (the second largest in ocean discharge), and 10 times that of the Mississippi. The Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, is the second largest river in the world in terms of water flow, and is 100 meters (over 300 feet) deep and 14 kilometers (~9 miles) wide near its mouth at Manaus, Brazil.

Raindrops keep falling on my head! Average rainfall across the whole Amazon basin is approximately 2300 mm (or ~7.5') annually. In some areas of the northwest portion of the Amazon basin, yearly rainfall can exceed 6000 mm (almost 20')!

Where does all that water go? The water discharged into the Atlantic Ocean is actually only about 1/3rd of the water that falls in the Amazon basin as rain. Where does the other 2/3rds go? Up to half of the rainfall in some areas may never reach the ground, being intercepted by the forest and re-evaporated into the atmosphere. Additional evaporation occurs from ground and river surfaces, or is released into the atmosphere by transpiration from plant leaves. All of this moisture re-enters the water cycling system of the Amazon, and a given molecule of water may be "re-cycled" many times between the time that it leaves the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and is carried by the prevailing westerly winds into the Amazon basin, to the time that it is carried back to the ocean by the Amazon River. The Andes Mountains that border the west side of the Amazon help to ensure that most of the moisture stays in the system - very little is carried by the prevailing winds over the Andes to the Pacific Ocean.

A long and winding river road. The total length of the Amazon River from its source springs in the Andes (taking the Ucayali River as the continuation of the main river into the Andes), is estimated at 6518 km ( ~4075 miles) (not including all river bends, and measuring the short distance around Marajó Island in the mouth of the Amazon). This is exceeded only by the Nile River (including the Kagera River) of Africa with a total length of 6671 km (4170 miles). If you measure the long-way around Marajo Island, however, the Amazon is slightly longer than the Nile! The Amazon headwaters are located high in the Andes at an elevation of about 5,200 meters (17,000 feet), and only 190 kilometers (120 miles) from the Pacific Ocean.

Like mother, like daughters.... Two of the tributaries of the Amazon, the Juruá and the Madeira Rivers, are both over 3,300 km (2,060 miles) long. About 1,100 other sizeable tributaries empty into the Amazon River.

Talk about a big mouth! The mouth of the Amazon is over 320 km wide (approximately 200 miles), and contains the worlds largest freshwater island, Marajó Island, with an area of 48,000 km2 (about the size of Switzerland).

Momma was not a Rolling Stone! After leaving the Andes, the elevational gradient of the Amazon is very low. Iquitos, Peru is some 3,600 km (2,250 miles) from the Atlantic, yet the river-level at low-water season is only about 100 m (a bit more than 300') above sea-level, and the slope is around 2 cm (less than one inch) vertical change per kilometer. In the lower Amazon, at the mouth of Rio Negro and still 1,500 km from the Atlantic, the river-level at low-water season is only 15 m (~47') above sea-level, and the slope is about 1 cm per kilometer. You won't find any white-water rapids along the main channel of the Amazon, though the sheer weight of the mass of water moves it along at a surprising speed.

NEWS FLASH!! Rumpelstiltskin Drowns in Slow Flood. The Amazon is not a good place to fall into a long deep sleep on the river bank! Seasonal water levels can vary up to 20 meters (65 feet) in the middle Amazon region. Towards the mouth of the Amazon, the yearly change becomes less and less, but even near the mouth of the Amazon (at the Rio Xingu), it is still 4 meters (12 feet). In the Iquitos region of Peru, the annual change in river levels is about 15 meters (~50').

Flooded but not drowned. The seasonal variation in water levels means that huge areas along the major rivers in the Amazon basin are flooded annually. The total area of flooded, or varzea, forest is between 50-60,000 km2, or about 4% of the total area of the Amazon rainforest. These flooded forest areas may extend as much as 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the main river channels, and the forest vegetation of the varzea is well adapted to being seasonally flooded. The structure and species composition of the varzea is very different from non-flooded upland (or terra firme) forest areas. Varzea forest areas are critical to the freshwater fisheries of the Amazon Basin.

Go with the flow. Despite the low slope of the Amazon, the river currents can be surprisingly strong. In the lower Amazon (with the lowest slope), current speeds range from 0.5-1.0 meters per second at low water, and twice that at flood stage. In localized areas, current speeds can reach as high as 3 meters (9.8 feet) per second.

Ships on a submarine river? The width of the Amazon at Iquitos, Peru (3,600 km/2,250 miles from the ocean) is about 2 km. Ocean-going ships can easily access the Port of Iquitos at high water, as the mean depth of the current-canal of the Amazon is between 40 and 50 m (or up to 150+ feet deep), and in places, over 100 m (over 300 feet) deep. Even hundreds of miles away from the ocean, sections of the bottom of the river channel actually lie below sea level!

World's Biggest Outhouse! In the Atlantic Ocean beyond the mouth of the Amazon, and resting on the continental shelf, the Amazon sediment cone has a length of about 680 km and a width of 250 km. These fine grained deposits (mostly clay/mud particles) on the ocean floor are over 11,000 meters (36,000 feet) thick. This is mostly sediment that has been carried downriver from the Andes Mountains, the Guianan Shield (to the North) and the Brazilian Shield (to the south), by the river current, and which settled out of the water column once the river current dissipated into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

World's Biggest Washtub. The Amazon basin (the watershed of the Amazon River) is 7,050,000 km2 in area (or about 2,500,000 miles2), and covers about 40% of South America. Of this area, approximately 5,000,000 km2 is (or was) covered by high tropical rainforest, with the remainder covered by savannah ("campo") or scrubby woodland ("cerrado"). The Amazon basin covers significant portions of the countries of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia, though the major part of the watershed lies within Brazil. The next largest tropical watershed, that of the Congo River, at 3,690,000 km2, is only half the size of the Amazon basin.

Violent Revolution Rocks South America! Although it now empties into the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon once flowed into the Pacific! The uplift of the Andes Mountains about 65 million years ago in a geological event called the Laramide Revolution cut the flow to the Pacific, and forced the Amazon River to flow eastward. This revolution took place when the westward-moving South American (geological or tectonic) plate crashed headlong into the eastern-moving Nazca Plate. The Nazca plate was forced beneath the South American plate, lifting up the Andes mountains in a process that continues to this day, as evidenced by the many earthquakes and high volcanic activity of the Andes region.

But It's a Dry Heat... The Amazon basin has not always been an area of lush tropical rainforest. At several times during its history, the basin has been the location of huge lakes and shallow seas. Salt deposits up to 600 meters thick (nearly 2000 feet!) have also been found in some locations, indicating that at one time, the basin may have been desert-like, drying up the shallow seas and creating the salt deposits.

A Well Watered Desert! Would you believe that the Amazon River has its own sand dunes? Echogrammes of the river bed below the mouth of the Rio Negro show giant sand dunes as long as 600 meters (2000 feet) and up to 12 meters (39 feet) in height. These dunes are gradually moved downstream in the same manner that wind moves sand-dunes in "true" deserts!

A Bouillabaisse of Fishes. The Amazon basin is home to over 2,500 species of fish, more species than are recorded for the entire Atlantic Ocean, and some experts estimate that there may be as many as 6,000 species! These range from giant 3-meter air-breathing fish (Arapaima gigas) and river catfish weighing up to 600-700 lbs, to tiny tetras, electric eels, sting-rays, needlefish, fresh-water flying-fish, and knife-fish. The fish fauna of many river systems is poorly known, and new species are discovered yearly, even in the "better-known" areas!

Many of the above "Amazon Facts" are adapted from the following sources:

  • The Amazon. Limnology and Landscape Ecology of a Mighty Tropical River and its Basin. (1984) H. Sioli, editor. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Dordrecht (ISBN 90-6193-108-8).
  • The Palms of the Amazon. (1995) A. Henderson. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 362 pages. (ISBN 0-19-508311-3).
  • Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas (1995; A. Henderson, G. Galeano and R. Bernal; Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey; ISBN 0-691-08537-4)
  • A Neotropical Companion. 2nd Ed. (1997) J. C. Kricher. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 451 pages. (ISBN 0-691-04433-3

See the Recommended Reading page for many more great sources of information.

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