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Mapping the Physical and Human Characteristics of the United States

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  • 0:02 Physical & Human…
  • 0:49 Human Characteristics
  • 2:16 Physical Characteristics
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After watching this video, you will be able to describe the physical and human characteristics of the United States, including cities, mountains, rivers, and valleys, among others. A short quiz will follow.

What Are Physical and Human Characteristics?

Physical characteristics are things that are part of the land itself. They are a description of the landforms of an area, ignoring human activities. This includes rivers, coasts, bays, mountains, canyons, valleys, and lakes, among other features. Physical maps are the best way to display the physical characteristics of an area. Human characteristics, in contrast, are the features of a geographical area caused by humans, including cities, towns, dams, roads, and communication links.

In this lesson, we'll summarize some of the human and physical characteristics of the United States. Since the United States is huge, and there are many such characteristics, we'll focus on the most important ones.

Human Characteristics

The largest cities in the United States are New York (with 8.4 million people), Los Angeles (with 3.9 million people), Chicago (with 2.7 million people), Houston (with 2.2 million people), and Philadelphia (with 1.6 million people). The wider Washington, DC metro area is also home to 5.8 million people, and the San Francisco Bay Area claims 7.44 million people. Other major U.S. cities include Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas.

Why are these cities so big? In most cases, they're positioned near bodies of water, whether lakes, oceans, or rivers. River cities in the United States include New York (the Hudson), New Orleans (the Mississippi), Washington, DC (the Potomac and Anacostia), and Philadelphia (the Delaware). Coastal cities include Los Angeles (the Pacific), New York again (the Atlantic), San Diego (the Pacific), and San Francisco (the Pacific). Last of all, Chicago is along Lake Michigan. Water is important for population growth, especially in the early days of a city, because it provides fertile floodplain land for farming, ways to transport goods for trade, and in the case of rivers and lakes, freshwater for drinking.

Physical Characteristics

The U.S. is a rugged terrain with many mountains, probably the most well known of which are the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are the country's backbone, stretching from New Mexico to Montana - a journey of 3,000 miles - and they're the second longest mountain range in the world. The USA also has the Appalachian Mountains, the Cascades, the Alaska Range, and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The largest mountain in the whole United States is Mount McKinley in Alaska, and the largest mountain in the contiguous United States is Mount Whitney in California, which is part of the Sierra Nevada range. In terms of valleys and canyons, the most famous ones are probably Death Valley (the hottest and driest place in the United States), the Grand Canyon (18 miles wide, 1 mile deep and 277 miles long), and Napa Valley (home of some of Americas best wines).

Rivers and lakes are important, because they're like the circulation system of the United States. As we discussed earlier, many cities are close to bodies of water because water is so essential for human life, offering both drinking water and available water for farming. Floodplains of rivers also produce extremely fertile land. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are the largest and most important rivers in the U.S. The Missouri is the longest river (at 2,341 miles), and the Mississippi has the largest drainage system of all U.S rivers. There's also the Rio Grande, the Colorado River, and the Yukon.

When it comes to lakes, the United States has the Great Lakes in the Northeast (Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario), which are so huge they contain 21% of the world's fresh water. There's also the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which is the biggest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere, and Crater Lake, which is the deepest lake in the United States.

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