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Mapped: The Drainage Basins of the World’s Longest Rivers

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Drainage basins of the world's longest rivers

Drainage Basins of the World’s Longest Rivers

Most of the earth’s surface is covered in water, but less than 1% of it is the fresh water that makes up the rivers and lakes we’re familiar with.

The water we encounter in life is moving through the stages of the water cycle. And even though rivers make up a tiny portion of all fresh water, they’re still one of the most visible parts of that cycle, especially for the billions of people who live in cities and towns built alongside them.

Of course, rivers don’t just appear out of nowhere. They’re the end result of water’s land-based journey–the product of many compounding inflows collected within a drainage basin.

The map above, from Reddit user r/CountZapolai, illustrates how massive the drainage basins can be for the world’s longest rivers.

What is a Drainage Basin?

A river’s drainage basin is defined as the area of land where precipitation collects and drains off, feeding the flow of rivers and their tributaries. Simply put, this is the process of water draining from higher points of land to lower laying areas–as demonstrated by the animation below.

drainage basins animation

In the case the world’s longest rivers, these drainage basins can span across entire continents and cross many international borders.

Fueling the World’s Longest Rivers

The longer a river system gets, the more terrain it passes through. It comes as no surprise then that the longest rivers are supported by immense drainage basins.

Here are the world’s top 10 longest rivers, and the size of their respective basins:

RankRiver systemLength in miles (km)Drainage area in miles² (km²)OutflowCountries in basin
1Nile4,130
(6,650)
1,256,591
(3,254,555)
Mediterranean🇪🇹🇪🇷🇸🇩🇺🇬🇹🇿🇰🇪🇷🇼🇧🇮🇪🇬🇨🇩🇸🇸
2Amazon3,976
(6,400)
2,702,715
(7,000,000)
Atlantic Ocean🇧🇷🇵🇪🇧🇴🇨🇴🇪🇨🇻🇪🇬🇾
3Yangtze3,917
(6,300)
694,984
(1,800,000)
East China Sea🇨🇳
4Mississippi3,902
(6,275)
1,150,584
(2,980,000)
Gulf of Mexico🇺🇸🇨🇦
5Yenisei3,445
(5,539)
996,143
(2,580,000)
Kara Sea🇷🇺🇲🇳
6Huang He (Yellow River)3,395
(5,464)
287,646
(745,000)
Bohai Sea🇨🇳
7Ob–Irtysh3,364
(5,410)
1,154,445
(2,990,000)
Gulf of Ob🇷🇺🇰🇿🇨🇳🇲🇳
8Río de la Plata3,030
(4,880)
997,175
(2,582,672)
Río de la Plata🇧🇷🇦🇷🇵🇾🇧🇴🇺🇾
9Congo2,922
(4,700)
1,420,856
(3,680,000)
Atlantic Ocean🇨🇩🇨🇫🇦🇴🇨🇩🇹🇿🇨🇲🇿🇲🇧🇮🇷🇼
10Amur2,763
(4,444)
716,220
(1,855,000)
Sea of Okhotsk🇷🇺🇨🇳🇲🇳

Note: There is debate about the actual length of certain river systems. See a more comprehensive range of estimates here.

These 10 longest rivers alone are fed by a land area equivalent to the size of Africa.

Of those, the Amazon Basin is the largest in the world by far, covering one-third of the South American continent.

River Drainage Basins and Humanity

The fact that huge population centers sit at the terminuses of many of these key rivers is a testament to how important watersheds are to our survival. Only 10% of the global population lives further than six miles away from a surface freshwater body, and more often than not, that fresh water comes in the form of a river.

Noting where rivers begin their journey is also important as well. In the case of Tibet, many of the world’s longest rivers are fed by drainage basins that begin in the region. In fact, six of Asia’s major rivers begin on the Tibetan Plateau, meeting the basic needs of billions of people.

By illustrating the world’s longest rivers and their drainage basins, maps like this one help put into perspective the breathtaking complexity of Earth’s hydrological cycle.

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Misc

12 Ways to Get Smarter in One Infographic

Highlighting and breaking down the 12 most useful and universal mental models that will make you smarter and more productive.

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12 Ways to Get Smarter in One Infographic

View the high resolution version of today’s graphic by clicking here.

The level of a person’s raw intelligence, as measured by aptitude tests such as IQ scores, is generally stable for most people during the course of their adulthood.

While it’s true that there are things you can do to fine tune your natural capabilities, such as doing brain exercises, solving puzzles, and getting optimal sleep—the amount of raw brainpower you have is difficult to increase in any meaningful or permanent way.

For those of us who constantly strive to be high-performers in our fields, this seems like bad news. If we can’t increase our processing power, then how can we solve life’s bigger problems as we move up the ladder?

The Key: Mental Models

The good news is that while raw cognitive abilities matter, it’s how you use and harness those abilities that really makes the difference.

The world’s most successful people, from Ray Dalio to Warren Buffett, are not necessarily leagues above the rest of us in raw intelligence—instead, they simply develop and learn to apply better mental models of how the world works, and they use these principles to filter their thoughts, decisions, strategies, and execution.

This infographic comes from best-selling author and entrepreneur Michael Simmons, who has collected over 650 mental models through his work. The infographic, in a similar style to one we previously published on cognitive biases, synthesizes these models down to the most useful and universal mental models that people should learn to master first.

Concepts such as the 80/20 rule (Pareto’s principle), compound interest, and network building are summarized in the visualization, and their major components are broken down further within the circle.

Mental Model Examples

Example #1: Pareto’s Principle (80/20 Rule for Prioritization)

In a recent Medium post by Simmons, he highlights a well-known mental model that is the perfect bread crumb to start with.

The 80/20 rule (Pareto’s principle) is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who was likely the first person to note the 80/20 connection in an 1896 paper.

In short, it shows that 20% of inputs (work, time, effort) often leads to 80% of outputs (performance, sales, revenue, etc.), creating an extremely vivid mental framework for making prioritization decisions.

80-20 law Pareto's principle

The 80/20 rule represents a power law distribution that has been empirically shown to exist throughout nature, and it also has huge implications on business.

If you focus your effort on these 20% of tasks first, and get the most out of them, you will be able to drive results much more efficiently than wasting time on the 80% “long-tail” shown below.

Power law distribution

Example #2: Metcalfe’s Law (Network Building)

Metcalfe’s Law is one of network effects, stating that a network’s value is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in the network.

From a mental model perspective, this is a useful way to understand how certain types of technology-driven businesses derive value.

If you have a smart grid that is only connected to one power source, that’s alright—but one connected to many different energy sources and potential consumers is much more useful for everyone on the grid. Each additional node provides value for the rest of the connections.

Metcalfe's Law illustrated

This mental model can be applied outside of strict technology or business terms as well.

For example, if you build a personal network of connections, each additional relationship can provide more value to the other people in your network. It’s the same principle that Harvard or other prestigious universities operate on: the more value a student can get from the alumni network, the higher price they can charge for tuition.

It’s hard to compete with a fully formed network at scale, as they create massive economic moats for the owner. Modern social networks and messaging apps like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, WhatsApp, and Snapchat all operate with this in mind.

The Power of Mental Models

These are just two examples of how powerful mental models can be effective in making you think clearer and work smarter.

If you want to be a top performer, it’s worth looking into other mental models out there as well. They can help you better frame reality, so that you can harness your intelligence and effort in the most effective way possible—and it’ll allow you to deliver results along the way.

This post was first published in 2018. We have since updated it, adding in new content for 2021.

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Misc

Visualized: The Biggest Ponzi Schemes in Modern History

Learn the stories behind some of the world’s biggest Ponzi schemes in this illustrative infographic timeline.

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The Biggest Ponzi Schemes in Modern History

Some things simply sound too good to be true, but when money is involved, our judgement can become clouded.

This is often the case with Ponzi schemes, a type of financial fraud that lures investors by promising abnormally high returns. Money brought in by new members is used to pay the scheme’s founders, as well as its earlier investors.

The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian who became infamous in the 1920s for claiming he could double his clients’ money within 90 days. Since then, numerous Ponzi schemes have been orchestrated around the globe.

To help you learn more about these sophisticated crimes, this infographic examines some of the biggest Ponzi schemes in modern history.

Ponzi Schemes in the 20th Century

The 1990s saw a number of large Ponzi schemes worth upwards of $500 million.

CountryDate EndedName of Scheme and FounderValue (USD)
Belgium1991Moneytron, Jean-Pierre Van Rossem$860M
Romania1994Caritas, Ioan Stoica$1B - $5B
Russia1994MMM, Sergei Mavrodi$10B
U.S.1997Great Ministries International, Geral Payne$500M

In many cases, these schemes thrived by taking advantage of the unsuspecting public who often lacked any knowledge of investing. Caritas, for example, was a Ponzi scheme based in Romania that marketed itself as a “self-help game” for the poor.

The scheme was initially very successful, tricking millions of people into making deposits by offering the chance to earn an 800% return after three months. This was not sustainable, and Caritas was eventually unable to distribute further winnings.

Caritas operated for only two years, but its “success” was undeniable. In 1993, it was estimated that a third of the country’s money was circulating through the scheme.

Ponzi Schemes in the 21st Century

The American public has fallen victim to numerous multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes since the beginning of the 21st century.

CountryDate EndedName of Scheme and FounderValue (USD)
U.S.2003Mutual Benefits Company, Joel Steinger$1B
U.S.2003Petters Group Worldwide, Tom Petters$4B
U.S.2008Madoff Investment Scandal, Bernie Madoff$65B
U.S.2012Stanford Financial Group, Allen Stanford$7B

Many of these schemes have made major headlines, but much less is said about the thousands of everyday Americans that were left in financial ruin.

For victims of the Madoff Investment Scandal, receiving any form of compensation has been a drawn-out process. In 2018, 10 years after the scheme was uncovered, a court-appointed trustee managed to recover $13 billion by liquidating Madoff’s firm and personal assets.

As NPR reported, investors may recover up to 60 to 70 percent of their initial investment only. For victims who had to delay retirement or drastically alter their lifestyles, this compensation likely provides little solace.

Do the Crime, Pay the Time

Running a Ponzi scheme is likely to land you in jail for a long time, at least in the U.S.

In 2009, for example, 71-year-old Bernie Madoff pled guilty to 11 federal felonies and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. That’s 135 years longer than the average U.S. murder conviction.

Outside of the U.S., it’s a much different story. Weaker regulation and enforcement, particularly in developing countries, means a number of schemes are ongoing today.

Sergei Mavrodi, known for running the Russian Ponzi scheme MMM, started a new organization named MMM Global after being released from prison in 2011. Although he died in March 2018, his self-described “social financial network” has established a base in several Southeast Asian and African countries.

If you or someone you know is worried about falling victim to a Ponzi scheme, this checklist from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) may be a useful resource.

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