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How Geographical Features Impact Economic Activity

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
In this lesson the reader will learn about how geographic features such as deserts oases, mountain passes, lakes and rivers were used to impact economies around the world.

How Geographical Features Impact Economic Activity

How can geographical features impact economic growth? Let's initially examine that question using a simple example. Trains increased the speed with which products made it from producer to consumer in the nineteenth century. But in order for a train route to be cost effective (meaning that the cost of the building the track would be covered by the goods that would be sold as a result of the rail being made), it had to follow a certain topography. Topography is basically how land heaves and dips in hills and valleys, and how it slopes to allow streams and rivers to flow. By studying the topography of the route and planning the best way around geographical obstacles, more money was made by producers who used the railroads to get their products cheaply and efficiently to buyers in different parts of the country.

Geographical Features

So what are the features worth considering?

• Mountains: Natural impediments that block access of one area from another.

• Deserts: Natural impediments similar to mountains because they are difficult to cross and are sparsely populated.

• Water: Can be an impediment to trade, but also a boon. This depends on the body of water and whether the trader has access to craft that can navigate the body of water.

Ancient Trade

The history of exploration and trade is a study of how people tried to overcome geographical features, and provide for themselves and their families. The first migration began in northern Africa. The area was becoming overcrowded, and hunter/gatherer societies needed large areas of land to support themselves. So, they moved north to present day Europe, and east into Asia establishing trade routes in the process. People also crossed the land bridge that once made the Bering Strait passable on foot.

Oceans were an impediment to ancient people because of fear of the unknown, and because most of the ships used were too small for an oceanic voyage. Although many people lived near ocean, they traded inland using lakes and rivers to transport goods.

Water Used to Promote Trade

Some of these bodies of water became famous because they were able to provide traders with a quick means of travel so that they could disperse their goods to a large population of consumers. Coastal ships have plied the waters of the Mediterranean Sea for more than 4,000 years between groups promoting commerce. In Europe the Caspian Sea (actually the world's largest lake) was safe enough that people were able to traverse it using small vessels. Rivers throughout Europe, Asia and Africa allowed trade where land routes were either slow or nearly impassable.

Large arid areas, like the Sahara Desert of Northern Africa and the Gobi Desert in Asia, were a large impediment to trade between communities. Traders had to use geographic anomalies so they could trade with people from other lands. To cross these land routes it was essential that enough water was available for the people and animals to use. Thus, water, in the form of oases, were vital resources along even the most remote, land-based trade routes.

In the United States, the Mississippi River was a major trade route used by American Indians and colonial trappers, both French and English. The Mississippi provides a direct route from northern United States to the Gulf of Mexico, and is still used to move major amounts of cargo. Other rivers such as the Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Colorado and Columbia were all used to move goods economically.

The Great Lakes are the geographical feature which were the most accessible in establishing early trade routes in North America. Stretching from New York to Minnesota, they have allowed for travel and trade from ancient times. Although the lakes can be temperamental, in general they are a much faster means of travel than using overland routes.

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