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"The Way the River Flows"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 20 February 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

A brave COSI educator reached out to me recently, requiring my assistance to settle a workplace debate. Brave because the educator had a question for me that they felt was a little on the silly - or perhaps worse, obvious - side, and didn't want to display their apparent ignorance to the world. That natural reluctance, while perfectly understandable, is a major impediment to science education, and developing strategies to overcome that will be the subject of another memo.

But for today we have the central question: what direction do rivers flow? North-to-south? South-to-north? Downhill? Something else?

Well, let's look at the major rivers of the world:

Amazon: west to east
Nile: south to north
Yangtze: west to east
Mississippi: north to south

Our own Scioto river flows from north to south, where it joins the westward-flowing Ohio river, and eventually to the south-heading Mississippi.

So rivers definitely don't follow a particular direction around the globe, but what sets their course? The answer is "downhill", but not in the way you might expect. While the Amazon's headwaters are in the mighty Andes mountains, the Mississippi is born in modestly hilly Minnesota.

To see why a river flows in a particular direction, you must ask yourself: "If I were a drop of water falling from the sky, where would I go?" If you fell on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, for example, you might find your way to a small stream that connects to the Missouri River, heading eastwards until you join the Mississippi. Even though the Mississippi has humble origins, it's fed by rainwater in the distant mountains.

The collection of all sources of a particular river is called its watershed, and detailed mapping and sophisticated algorithms can reveal what "downhill" really means to a river.

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter is COSI's Chief Scientist. He is an astrophysicist and offers a wealth of knowledge about our universe. In addition to his COSI position, Paul Sutter is a Cosmological Researcher and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP).