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What’s a Tributary? A Full Information

Rivers are complicated our bodies of water which have many elements. Tributaries are vital parts of a river, and so they have numerous ranges of classification. So, what’s a tributary? We’re going to discover this query in-depth, present examples of tributaries chances are you’ll know, and let you know how these methods are ranked. By the point we’re completed, you’ll know all about tributaries.

What’s a Tributary?

The Missouri River, although bigger than the Mississippi River, is a tributary of the latter.

A tributary is a physique of water, normally freshwater, that feeds into a bigger physique of water with out flowing into the ocean. For instance, tributaries could also be streams or rivers that feed into bigger streams and rivers. Because the title suggests, tributaries enhance the move of water to a different physique, providing their water as “tribute.”

Tributaries are particularly frequent round massive rivers. Usually, many streams of water come collectively as tributaries for a big physique of water. For instance, the Mississippi River is believed to have over 200 tributaries that move into it, together with the longer Missouri River.

The idea of a tributary shouldn’t be restricted by the concept that a big river can’t move into one other massive river. Let’s check out some vital tributaries to raised perceive them.

Examples of Essential Tributaries

The Mississippi River is a river that begins in Minnesota and runs the complete size of the nation till it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, the Mississippi River shouldn’t be itself a tributary as a result of it flows into the Gulf of Mexico within the Atlantic Ocean.

The Mississippi River is over 2,000 miles lengthy, and two different very massive rivers, the Missouri River and the Ohio River feeds into the mighty Mississippi River. Since these rivers feed into the principle stem, providing their water to the lengthy river, they’re tributaries. Mixed, these three rivers make the most important river system in the USA and one of many greatest in your complete world!

The Irtysh River is the longest tributary river in your complete world. This river measures over 2,600 miles and feeds into the Ob River. The Ob River is likely one of the longest rivers on the planet and has a mouth within the Gulf of Ob, a bay of the Arctic Ocean.

These are simply two examples of river tributaries. Oftentimes, rivers are fed water by very small streams which might be hardly noticeable in any respect. As we’ll present you with the rating methods, a set of small streams and rivers can present super quantities of water to a river.

Essential Tributary Terminology

Longest River in California - Joaquin River Delta
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta kinds a distinguished confluence.

Jeffrey T. Kreulen/

As we’ve got already talked about, tributaries are our bodies of water that feed into rivers. We’re going to try some terminology surrounding these waters that can assist your understanding of this time period slightly extra.


The time period prosperous is a synonym for a tributary stream. This definition is never used today, however older analysis might include this time period and tributary interchangeably.


A confluence is an space by which two our bodies of water come collectively and proceed as one. For instance, the Mississippi River and Missouri River type a confluence close to St. Louis. The Missouri River runs into the Mississippi River, feeding it water.  


A distributary is outlined as an space the place a river branches off from its distinguished run of water. You may even see this happen because the river nears its mouth or a big delta.  

Drainage Basin

The drainage basin is a big space by which rainfall, snowmelt, groundwater, or different water collects after which kinds right into a river by means of many tributaries. The drainage basin accommodates many tributaries all through tons of or 1000’s of sq. miles, relying on the river the waters feed into.


A river’s headwater is its level of origin and sometimes represents among the smallest parts of the river system. The Mississippi River’s headwaters are present in Lake Itasca, a comparatively small glacial lake in Minnesota. Because the water flows south and extra tributaries feed into it, the river grows from 20ft large to a number of miles large.

These definitions will make it easier to higher perceive tributaries and their surrounding waters.

What Are Tributary Hierarchies?

The 12 Longest Rivers in Europe - August 20, 2022
The Vyatka River is a proper tributary of the Kama River.

When discussing tributaries, scientists typically assign them values to find out their branching complexity. Additionally, they’re used to indicate a tributary’s significance to the move of the river. Two main theories that apply to hydrology embody the Strahler Stream Order and the Shreve Stream Order. Let’s take a more in-depth take a look at every.

Strahler Stream Order

The Strahler stream order tracks the origin of our bodies of water and represents a mathematical tree to quantify the complexity of branching segments. The Strahler stream order acts with three guidelines:

  • If the node is a leaf (has no youngsters), its Strahler quantity is one.
  • When the node has one youngster with Strahler quantity i, and all different youngsters have Strahler numbers lower than i, then the Strahler variety of the node is i once more.
  • If the node has two or extra youngsters with Strahler quantity i, and no youngsters with a better quantity, then the Strahler variety of the node is i + 1.

This type of measurement is efficient however complicated for laypeople.

Shreve Stream Order

The Shreve stream order is a bit less complicated to know. All our bodies of water that lack tributaries begin at stage 1. At confluences, locations the place the water flows into each other, the stream numbers are added. Thus, if each tributary is a “1”, it kinds a “2” on the confluence. So, if the Missouri River, with a variety of 3 shaped a confluence with the Mississippi River that was numbered 4, then the resultant river could be a 7.

These are simply two methods to determine stream orders and denote tributaries. These strategies will be useful in numerous research of water. Figuring out the tributaries of main rivers may help forestall air pollution and provides some perception into the historical past of the river.

In the meantime, finding out rivers is important due to how dependent people are upon them for financial and power wants. Some rivers, just like the Mississippi River, are poised to take new paths, and that might be devastating for the area. Though water move is complicated, it’s actually value understanding to a point.

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