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Geography of North America - HowStuffWorks com

Geography of North America - HowStuffWorks com



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Geography of North America
(Excerpted from
Introduction to Geography of North America
North America, the northern of the two continents of the Western Hemisphere, joined toSouth America at the tip of Panama. The Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans virtually surroundthe continent. The total area of 9,360,000 square miles (24,240,000 km2) is exceeded only bythat of Asia and of Africa. This total includes Greenland, Central America, and most of theWest Indian island.North America is part of the New World, so called because it was unknown to Europeansuntil comparatively recent times. From all parts of the world have come its people, bringing aheritage of ideas and skills that stimulated its rapid development. North America is rich inmineral, water, and forest resources, and is a world center of agriculture and industry.
Physical GeographyLand
North America has a wide diversity of landforms, represented by six distinct regions andmany subregions. There are three lowland regions (the Coastal Plain, the Canadian Shield, andthe Interior Plains) and three highland regions (the Appalachian Highlands, the NorthAmerican Cordillera, and the Antillean System). The Coastal Plain extends along the eastern coast from Mexico to Cape Cod. It continuesoffshore as the continental shelf, emerging southeast of Florida to form the Bahama Islands. The mainland portion of the Coastal Plain is narrow in the northeast but reaches a width of more than 400 miles (640 km) in the lower Mississippi River Valley. The low, generally flatplain rises slightly as it extends inland, where it is bordered by higher land for most of itslength. The Appalachian Highlands lie west of the Coastal Plain, reaching from Alabamanortheastward to the island of Newfoundland. The region is a series of long, parallel mountainridges lying between narrow plateaus on the east and west. These low, worn-down mountainsreach their greatest height, 6,684 feet (2,037 m) above sea level, at Mount Mitchell, in NorthCarolina. Elevation decreases in the southern and northern mountains. The Canadian Shield (or Laurentian Plateau) covers Greenland and much of central andnorthern Canada and extends into the United States in the Superior Uplands and theAdirondack Mountains. It is composed of hard crystalline rock scoured by glaciers that lefthundreds of lakes. The plateau averages about 1,000 feet (300 m) above sea level,decreasing slightly westward and southward. The Interior Plains region is a vast, comparatively level expanse occupying a large part of the continent's interior. It lies between the Appalachian Highlands, the Canadian Shield, andthe Rocky Mountains, and merges with the Coastal Plain to the south. There are two majorsubregions, distinguished chiefly by their elevation. To the east are the Central Lowlands,which average about 600 feet (180 m) above sea level. The second subregion is the GreatPlains, in the west. This relatively flat grassland ascends gradually to a maximum of 6,000feet (1,800 m) at its western edge, the Rocky Mountains. Two small highland areas are often included within the Interior Plains—the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Central Uplands (Ozark and Ouachita plateaus). The North American Cordillera covers much of the western third of the continent. It is acomplex highland region stretching from Alaska to southern Mexico and containing highmountains and broad plateaus. Its most prominent features are two great mountain systems—the Rocky Mountains and the ranges near the Pacific coast. The Rockies reach their highestelevations—more than 14,400 feet (4,390 m)—in Colorado, and gradually descend to thenorth and south. The Pacific mountains, which in some places are more rugged than theRockies, have the continent's highest peaks. Mount McKinley, in Alaska, stands 20,320 feet(6,194 m) above sea level—the highest point in North America.Between these two extensive systems are plateaus, basins, and scattered mountainranges. This pattern continues southward, where Mexico's Central Plateau is rimmed by the1
Sierra Madres on the east and west. A belt of volcanic mountains south of Mexico Citycontains Mexico's highest peaks. The Antillean System adjoins the North American Cordillera on the south, trending eastand southeast from southern Mexico through Central America and the islands of the Antilles. The western peaks of Central America are generally the highest in the region, and includeactive volcanoes. The maximum elevation is 12,533 feet (3,820 m) in Costa Rica's Chirripó.Narrow coastal plains, formed mainly by deposits of mountain streams, fringe the mountainsin many areas.
 The large size of the continent makes possible long rivers, and two of the longest in theworld—the Mississippi and Mackenzie systems—flow across the continent. Two of theMississippi's tributaries—the Ohio and the Missouri—are themselves major rivers. Shorterrivers, especially near the east and west coasts of the United States, are frequently used fornavigation and for generating electric power. In Central America, rivers are little used becausethey are short and have swift currents.Most of the continent's lakes are in the glaciated areas in the north. Though most of thelakes are small, eight of the world's largest are in this area. These eight are the Great Lakesand three Canadian lakes—Great Bear, Great Slave, and Winnipeg. There are few lakes in thedry southwest, and those that exist there (such as Great Salt Lake) are slowly decreasing insize because of evaporation. The only large lakes in Central America are Lakes Nicaragua andManagua.
North America's climates range from polar to tropical, from dry to extremely rainy. Thereare many reasons for this wide range, but the more important ones are latitude, elevation,effects of large bodies of water and ocean currents, and prevailing winds. Latitude is largelyresponsible for the consistently cold climate of Greenland and the Arctic islands, and for thewarm climates of much of the West Indies and Central America.In North America's interior, far from the moderating influence of the sea, the land heatsrapidly in summer and cools just as rapidly in winter, causing great seasonal extremes of temperature. In some interior areas winters are more extreme than in polar lands, andsummers hotter than in the tropics. In general, precipitation increases south and east, withthe maximum amounts along the Gulf Coast.In coastal areas, especially the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States, seasonalvariations are less pronounced because of the moderating effect of the sea. Winds movingover the relatively warm ocean waters bring mild temperatures and moderate to heavy rain.Inland in the south-western United States and northern Mexico, rain decreases andtemperatures increase, creating desert and near-desert conditions.Elevation and exposure to moisture-laden winds are important factors in determining theclimates in tropical Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies. Temperatures are high allyear, and rainfall is generally greatest on the east coast, reaching maximums in Panama andBelize.
Wildlife of North AmericaLife in the Water
Animals and plants are abundantly represented in the waters of North America. Fish,amphibians, insects, and other aquatic animals appear in water ranging from near-freezing,rapid streams to warm, sluggish swamps. Some fish, such as eels and salmon, live in freshwater and salt water at different times in their lives. Other water inhabitants are animals thatalso live on land. These include turtles, water snakes, ducks, loons, and otters.
Life in Tropical Forests
 The frost-free tropical forests of Central America contain the continent's widest variety of plant and animal life. Vegetation includes palms, bamboos, orchids, and tree ferns. Reptiles,amphibians, and insects abound. Birds and mammals not found elsewhere in North Americainclude jacanas, parrots, monkeys, sloths, and agoutis.2
Life in Eastern Forests
Adaptation to periods of freezing weather and scarcity of food is necessary for the survivalof plants and animals living in the forests of eastern North America. In the Coastal Plain southof Virginia these forests contain primarily pines; from Virginia northward, most of the treeslose their leaves in winter. Here are found oaks, elms, maples, and hickories. The ability to hibernate allows frogs, toads, snakes, and turtles to survive the winter. Mostkinds of birds, including warblers, thrushes, and hawks, migrate southward for the winter. Jays, woodpeckers, and chickadees are among those that do not migrate. Mammals keepwarm in various ways—by hibernating, becoming dormant, or growing heavy coats, forexample. Mammals include bats, opossums, foxes, deer, and many kinds of rodents.
Life in the Grassland
 The area of grassland extends roughly from the southern areas of the Prairie Provinces of Canada almost to the Rio Grande in the west-central portion of the continent. The area ischaracterized by a small amount of rainfall, which results in a lack of trees and thepredominance of grass for vegetation: long grass in the prairie area, and short grass in thedrier steppe area.Insects, amphibians, and reptiles, having adapted to living in the grass, are often green orlight brown in color. Most of the grassland birds, such as prairie chickens, larks, and burrowingowls, nest on the ground or in burrows. Grassland mammals include prairie dogs, pronghorns,and coyotes.
Life in the Desert
Plants and animals of the desert areas of the Great Basin and northern Mexico mustendure water scarcity, temperature extremes, and drying winds. Some plants, such asmesquite, have deep roots that extend far underground for moisture; some, such assucculents, store water for future use. The seeds of annuals may lie dormant for many yearsand then germinate quickly after a rain. Many kinds of insects are present. Scorpions, lizards,snakes, fly-catchers, roadrunners, kangaroo mice, kit foxes, and peccaries are found here.Most desert animals eat insects and are adapted to conserve the water available to them.
Life in the Northern Coniferous Forests
 The forest trees growing in the severe northern climates of central Canada and at highaltitudes in the Appalachian and Rocky mountains are primarily spruce and fir. Along thenorthern Pacific coast are coniferous rain forests containing chiefly Sitka spruce, coastredwood, western hemlock, and Douglas fir. Flies and mosquitoes are particularly abundantinsects. Because of the cold winters, few reptiles and amphibians live here. Although mostbirds migrate, some—such as ravens, jays, and grouse—remain for the winter. Fur-bearing andthick-coated mammals of these forests include moose, wolves, weasels, lynx, and bears.
Life in the Tundra
 The frozen ground and extreme cold of the arctic tundra, located in the northernmostreaches of North America, prevent the survival of most plants other than certain mosses,herbs, grasses, and shrubs. Lichens are common. The same kinds of organisms are found highin the Rockies and northern Appalachians.Insects and waterfowl breed in the tundra during the summer. Living here through thewinter are the cold-adapted snowy owls, willow ptarmigans, lemmings, hares, caribou, muskoxen, and polar bears. Some of the animals have differently colored summer and winter coats,providing them with protective coloration.
Economic Activities
 The nations of North America are at varying levels of economic development. The UnitedStates and Canada are the most industrially and technologically advanced nations, with thehighest percentages of workers in nonagricultural pursuits—well over 90 per cent. Mexico hasa fairly diversified economy and a growing industrial sector. The development omanufacturing, however, has not been widespread and unemployment is a major problem inMexico.3

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