Thursday, May 05, 2016

Amazon Surprise

"The Amazon" is a term that can refer to the same geographic area in slightly different ways. Politically, it is a collection of states in northern Brazil. It is also the name of a river that begins either in Peru or in Manaus, depending upon whether one considers the Solimões to be a separate river. It can also refer to the 1,000 named (and countless unnamed) rivers that drain toward the sea through that river (including a dozen rivers over 1,000 miles long in their own right). It can also refer to the 3,000,000 square miles of land drained by these rivers.

It is important to note that the "legal Amazon" covered by those northern states of Brazil cover only about half of the basin of the same name. The rest is divided among Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. We associate the Amazon with Brazil because Peru includes only 16 percent of the basin, and the other countries much less.

A younger Dr. Hayes-Boh helping out
with some field work in Porto Velho, 2003
It also, of course, refers to the rain forest that covers roughly the same ground -- the largest and most diverse ecosystem on the planet, responsible for a large proportion of the oxygen we breathe. I have been fortunate enough to be in the Amazon four times. The Brazilian state of Rondônia is where I did my doctoral research in 1997. During that visit, I briefly saw the Wedding of the Waters in Manaus, where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões flow together for many miles before mixing. I returned twice for further research -- with my family in 2000 and with a biology student in 2003. During those visits I got to see the legendary pink dolphins and manatees -- freshwater variants of those marine mammals more than 2,000 miles from salt water.

My most recent visit to the Amazon Basin, I saw glaciers, llamas, and fields of quinoa. The rushing streams we found in highland Peru during our 2014 visit to Machu Picchu were flowing away from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and would ultimate reach the Atlantic at the mouth of the Amazon.

At the end of my 1997 visit, I also had the chance to see that famous mouth from the air. One-fifth of the world's river water reaches the sea there, in a flow that is difficult to describe. Two hundred miles out to sea, the fresh water of this flow dominates. The world's largest fluvial island sits near the mouth -- Marajó is the size of Switzerland. The river that can hold such an island does not even really look like a river. When our airplane approached the city of Belem just after dawn, I thought the pilot had taken us out over the ocean.

I do not want to suggest that the Amazon is more exotic than it is. While I was there I visited universities, used computers, rode in cars. I even went to a shopping mall a couple of times. Several million people live in the basin, and many of them live in cities. In fact, urbanization was the subject of my research in the Amazon.

But the scale of the river really is stupendous, and many parts of the basin are little-known. This is all brought to mind by a very surprising discovery recently announced by oceanographers who were working just off-shore. A coral reef six hundred miles in length has just been found under those muddy waters. The mud of half a continent has been obscuring an area of coral and sponges about the size of Connecticut. Observations of unexpected fish populations published in 1977 had suggested the possibility, but it could not be confirmed until last month. Little is yet known about this reef, except that it is -- like those dolphins and manatees in Rondônia -- uniquely adapted to very atypical conditions.

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