Cape in Geography: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Capes are dramatic landforms and often popular tourist destinations. In this lesson, we'll learn how to identify a cape, and check out some of the ways they can form.

Cape

Superheroes and geographers have a lot in common. They're both awesome, they both frequently end up in boots, and they both spend a good amount of time around capes. Of course, that term means something a little different in geography.

In geography, a cape is a specific kind of coastal landform—so, a landmass that comprises the boundary between land and water. Specifically, it's a landform that juts out into the water, creating a clear change in the shape or composition of the coastline. Most capes come from land that is elevated above the water, so steep cliffs are common features of many capes. Want to learn more about capes? It's the heroic thing to do.

Capes versus Peninsulas

If you've studied geography before, then you're probably thinking that a landmass jutting out into water sounds familiar. That's a peninsula, right? While capes and peninsulas are similar, they're not quite the same thing. One of the biggest differences is in size. Peninsulas tend to be fairly large landforms that protrude a good distance from the main landmass. They also tend to be fairly narrow at the point where the peninsula touches the main land.

Capes, on the other hand, tend to be smaller features. Generally, they're just one part of a coastline that sticks out into the water, not a near-island-like feature that just happens to be connected to land. Interestingly, many peninsulas actually have capes along their own coastlines. However, it would be impossible to have a peninsula at the end of a cape.

Cape of Good Hope, in South Africa
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How Capes are Formed

Capes are pretty unique features, so how are they created? The general process that creates most capes is erosion. However, there can be different forces responsible for this erosion. There are three main types of capes, each defined by how they're formed.

Tidal Erosion

Being along the sea, coasts are constantly subject to tidal forces. Over time, this erodes sand and rocks on the shoreline. But what if the shoreline is composed of rocks of different hardness? That's one way that capes can form. Over years, the tides and other forces break down softer rocks like sandstone. Those erode, and the shoreline recedes or turns into a gravelly beach. However, clusters of harder (perhaps volcanic or metamorphic) rocks within the softer rocks remain since they're tougher to break apart. The result is an outcrop of hard rocks that extends beyond the rest of the shoreline, which has been eroded. This is how the Cape of Good Hope, near the southern tip of Africa, was created. Strong tides broke apart the softer rocks, but the hard ones remained, forming a cape.

Sandy Capes

The Cape of Good Hope was created as the shoreline was eroded away, but capes can also be created by building up the shoreline. Ocean currents running in two different directions meet over shallow areas near the coast, pushing sand together. Over time, this buildup of sand becomes a new shoreline of compacted sandstone. It's connected to the land, so it's clearly a cape, but one that was created through different processes. Capes like this will also continue to be shaped through erosion as well, and it's important to remember that all capes are subject to frequent changes as the forces that created them continue to reshape them.

The cape of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California was created by ocean currents that pushed sand together, which is what gives its rocks such distinctive texture
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