One week today – Sunday September 26th, marks World Rivers Day, a day to raise awareness of the issues facing our rivers and the opportunities to restore and conserve local waterways. World Rivers Day started nearly 30 years ago in BC and has since been recognized by both the Government of Canada and the UN, and is celebrated by millions of people in dozens of countries around the world.
As I did a little looking around for info on the World Rivers Day celebrations, I came across this cool infographic (click for bigger version) from theBigWild.org showing the world’s biggest rivers’ length and total flow in a striking visual fashion, so I thought I’d share. Two things really jump out about this pic: 1) Canada, despite our abundance of freshwater, only has one river up there: the Mighty Mackenzie, and 2) just how massive the Amazon is compared to all the other ‘great’ rivers! That got me looking around and I discovered that the Amazon accounts for 20% of the world’s total river flow… which is massive.
A related post on the same blog that led me to that graphic had some other infographics from the early 1800s showing the known mountains and rivers and their relative size or length. I found these cool, too, so with World Rivers Day in mind I’ll also share:
I notice that Mount Everest and K2 aren’t listed, but then found out that Everest’s height wasn’t published until the 1850s, 20 years after this map was made. There’s also no Mackenzie river… but western Canada was also still being mapped back then!
The source for these maps was a site called BibliOdyssey, and I found another well-written post there that really brings home the reason for World Rivers Day in the first place, and with the support of none other than Mark Twain.
The Mississippi, like all great rivers, is constantly rearranging itself, filling in where it used to be, cutting new watery paths through fields, creating islands. Back in 1944 a cartographer named Harold Fisk decided to draw a map of the Mississippi as it flowed in his day (click on this little map, so you get the full effect) The white channel is the 1944 river and working backwards from geological maps, he also drew the river as it had been in earlier decades (all those other colored ribbons) and produced a lovely fugue of multiple ghostly Mississippis for the Army Corps of Engineers
This picture is just a slice of the larger map, but the change in the river flow is amazing. For the sake simplicity, I’m going to post a large excerpt from the post by Robert Krulwich:
In his new book Twain’s Feast Andrew Beahrs writes that when Mark Twain was a boy, the river was always changing shape, especially when no one was looking. "It transformed under the stars and in pitch blackness, in gray mist and by the light of a multitude of moons … [it] had a new story to tell every day."
Twain learned to memorize the river, "steering by the constantly revised shape in his head; it was a job few could do at all, and fewer still could do it well." And it was glamorous.
The only men able to maneuver these fragile but imposing craft were the pilots. While his steamboat was underway, a river pilot had authority even over the captain who might set destination, cargo and schedule but was legally bound to defer to the pilot in matters of navigation. A river pilot, Twain thought, was "the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived the earth." Kings, by comparison, were underlings."
But then Twain grew up and moved East. He heard, of course, that engineers were trying to tame the river, but he never thought they could.
"One who knows the Mississippi," Twain said, "will promptly aver — not aloud, but to himself — that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at."
But the engineers pushed and prodded and Twain’s wild river began to calm. Returning for a look-see in the 1880’s, Andrew Beahrs describes how Twain "felt the change in his blood. … He saw snag boats "pulling the river’s teeth and government beacons that made the dark flow into a "two-thousand mile torch-light procession." To Twain’s eyes so many navigational aids sterilized the river. "This thing," he reflected about the network of lights, "has knocked the romance out of piloting, to a large extent."
And the river too. "Alas," he wrote, "everything was changed …That world which I knew in its blossoming youth is old and bowed and melancholy now; its soft cheeks are leathery and wrinkled, the fire is gone out of its eyes and the spring from its step. It will be dust and ashes when I come again."
Well, the Mississippi is still there, of course, still making terrible mischief, but as Beahrs points out in his book, the mud that used to leach out of 28 states and travel all the way to Louisiana is no longer making the full journey.
"For seven thousand years, residue of Montanan turf, New York mud, Wisconsin sod, and Arkansan clay had built the swamps and wetlands; Illinois’ and Iowa’s losses were Louisiana’s gain. The state was literally built from half of America," he wrote.
But engineering improvements, dams particularly, trapped so much mud and sand, deposits stopped reaching Louisiana.
And so the Delta is now disappearing, "melting away…almost fast enough to be visible to the naked eye — a football field’s worth of land vanishes every forty-five minutes".
The land that lies south of this survey is slowly but surely slipping under the sea. So the Mississippi journey our mapmaker Harold Fiske took in 1944 is getting shorter, and shorter and shorter.