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Mountain: Definition, Formation, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:00 What is a Mountain?
  • 0:50 Characteristics of Mountains
  • 1:45 The Formation of Mountains
  • 2:40 Examples of Mountains
  • 4:00 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.

This lesson will explain how a mountain is defined, how mountains are formed, and their characteristics, as well as discuss some of the most famous or significant mountains. A short quiz will follow.

What Is a Mountain?

Most of us can picture mountains in our minds, but how is a mountain really defined?

In general, a mountain is a landform that has some kind of significant prominence or distinction compared to the surrounding land, usually in the shape of a peak. Mountains are considered to be steeper, taller, and more prominent than hills. Mountains can rise individually, but usually form in a series of mountains called a mountain range. But what makes a mountain a mountain? And what makes a hill a hill?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to that question - there is no universally accepted definition. Most commonly, prominence is used to define mountains. Some authorities consider anything above 300 meters (1000 ft) to be a mountain, while others make the borderline 600 meters (2000 ft).

Characteristics of Mountains

So even though there does not seem to be a clear-cut minimum for the height of a piece of land to be called a mountain, there are several characteristics to consider.

Mountains are prominent landforms that have significant heights above sea level and/or the surrounding land. They are steeper than hills. A mountain or mountain range usually has a peak, which is a pointed top. Mountains have different climates than land at sea level and nearby flat land. Climate is the weather over an extended time period for a specific area. The climate of mountains tends to include colder weather, wetter weather, and thinner air. Thin air refers to the fact that at the higher altitudes of a mountain there is less oxygen to breathe. Also, mountains generally have less hospitable conditions for plants and animals. This leads to quite different evolutionary adaptations for those plants and animals that make higher elevations their home.

The Formation of Mountains

The Earth's crust is split up into sections, like an egg whose shell is severely cracked. Those sections of the Earth's crust are called tectonic plates, and they float on a sea of hot magma or molten rock. If two of those plates collide with each other, one is forced under the other, and this pushes the land upwards to form mountains. The Himalaya mountain range is still growing through this process.

Some mountains are formed by erupting volcanoes. Volcanoes are openings in the Earth's crust that are directed downward. During an eruption volcanoes release gas, ash, solid rock, and lava. Some volcanoes that have released large amounts of molten material over time to reach impressive heights are sometimes called mountains. In Hawaii, there are volcanoes that are mountains. Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are two examples.

Examples of Mountains

The tallest land-based mountain on Earth is Mount Everest, which reaches 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) above sea level. Mount Everest is located in Nepal and is part of the Himalayan Mountains. However, did you know that Everest is not the tallest mountain on Earth? In fact, Hawaii's Mauna Kea begins at the ocean floor and reaches a total of 10,203 meters (33,476 feet). However, from sea level, Mauna Kea reaches the still-impressive height of 14,000 feet.

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