Mountain Ranges in the United States & Their Effects

Instructor: Lorrine Garrison-Boyd
Just like the song 'America the Beautiful', which mentions 'purple mountains majesties', America is indeed endowed with beautiful mountains. Let's take a look at three of the major mountain ranges in the United States, their unique characteristics, and how people make their homes there.

A Nation of Many Mountains

There are more mountains in the United States than the average person is probably aware of. In fact, there are mountains or mountain peaks in almost every state of the country. However, this lesson will focus on the three major mountain ranges: the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada and the Appalachian Mountains.

Mountains were formed over millions of years ago, and they were formed different ways. Some were formed when volcanoes repeatedly erupted. Others were formed when two plates of the earth's crust collided against each other. In each case gravity and weather washed away the earth, creating cracked, sculptured and gouged mountains.

Mountains were formed over millions of years ago

The Rocky Mountains

The lyrics of a popular song from the 1970s mention Colorado, forests, streams and lakes, all of which are synonymous with the Rocky Mountains. This mountain range is the second largest in the world and the longest in United States. Although it contains some of the highest peaks found in North America, the absolute highest peak is not found here.

The Rocky Mountains extend from the Northern part of British Columbia in Canada to New Mexico, totaling approximately 3,000 miles. Mount Elbert in Colorado is the highest point, reaching over 14,400 feet above sea level. Geographically, the Rocky Mountains are classified as fold mountainswhich means they were formed where two tectonic plates meet. (Tectonic plates are pieces of the Earth's crust and upper mantle).

The Rocky Mountains are also where the United States' Continental Divide is located. Here is where water west of the mountain range flows to the Pacific Ocean, and water on the east side flows to the Atlantic Ocean. Seasons of the year are very distinct in these mountains with a lot of rain in the summer and a lot of snow and cold in the winter. Some areas have semi-arid climates while others have less than 15 inches of rainfall a year, producing arid climates.

Another distinct feature of this mountain range are the forests, covering the region with juniper, pine, spruce, fir and oak trees. The wildlife includes deer, bears, badgers, sheep, coyotes, and elk. Unfortunately, the natural habitat ranges of some of these animals have been restricted by construction and human population growth. However, Yellowstone Park and other national parks are also located here and function as a source of protection for the area's natural resources.

Church in Colorado

Life in the Rocky Mountains

Overall the quality of life in and near the Rocky Mountains is considered to be favorable, and its residents place a high priority on maintaining economic, civic and environmental excellence. People are attracted to the region's vast options for outdoor recreation along with its natural beauty. While there are several urban areas, most of the region consists of sparsely populated rural areas.

However, like many places, the Rockies face some environmental, social and economic challenges brought about by global warming. For example, a reduction in the amount of snow due to climate change has an adverse affect on tourist activities such as skiing and snowboarding. Yet one source stated living in the Rocky Mountains reminds its residents that 'nature defines existence in a world not humanly developed'.

Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada mountain range, the youngest of the three, is characterized by breathtaking caverns, flowers, meadows, lakes, waterfalls and granite formations, all adding to its scenic beauty. It's described as the dream of anyone who loves the outdoors and the splendor of nature. This is the home of Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, which is described as having cobalt blue waters that reflect the sky. Sixty-five percent of water consumed by the residents of California comes from a 400-mile range of peaks and canyons bordering this mountain range. After snow melts in the spring, the water streams into a collection system and then into homes across the state.

The Sierra Nevada stretches across two states, California and Nevada, with most of it in California. The Sierra Nevada extends along the west coast of the United States and runs north to south. The range is approximately 70 miles wide and 400 miles long, with Mount Whitney, its highest point, measuring 14,505 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states of the country. The mountains of the Sierra Nevada range are categorized as fault-block mountains, meaning they were formed along a fault in the Earth's crust.

The largest trees in the world, the giant sequoia trees, grow in the Sierra Nevada. They can grow up to 270 feet tall and over 25 feet in diameter. Some of these trees are believed to be over 3,000 years old. Also found here are the oldest plants in the world, the bristlecone pine.

One of the largest trees in the world

Life in Sierra Nevada

Years ago fortune seekers traveled to these mountains in search of gold. Then in the early 20th century others came from Europe and Japan to develop orchards after hearing how well fruit grew in the mountains' rich soil. Later, ski resorts were developed by World War II veterans, starting a trend among explorers, entrepreneurs and lovers of nature that still exists today. The mountains are home to ranchers, farmers, vintners, curators and others.

However, this mountain range also faces challenges with changes in climate. Climate change is responsible for reducing the amount of snow and shortening the length of winters, which in turn shortens the length and availability of recreational activities, such as snowboarding and skiing, affecting the local economy that relies in part on recreation and tourism.

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