New York State: Geography, Climate & Land Use

Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

New York's geography was mostly formed by glaciers that covered the state thousands of years ago. Learn how glacial movement shaped the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, and the major waterways in New York State, and how that has affected land use ever since.

Before the Glaciers

The geography of New York today was mostly shaped by glaciers. But before we get into that, take a look at what came first: the bedrock underneath the glaciers.

The rock in most of New York State is mostly sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock is formed when sediment, like sand or mud, accumulates and gets compacted into rock. From this, geologists can infer that much of the state was underwater for most of its history, with layers of sedimentary rock forming at the bottom of the sea.

By contrast, some parts of the state have igneous and metamorphic rocks. This is true of most of New York City, for example. Igneous rocks are formed when lava is ejected from volcanoes and cools into rock. Metamorphic rocks form when other types of rock are transformed by heat and pressure. From these layers of igneous and metamorphic rocks, geologists know that there were once active volcanoes in this area.

Topographical map of New York State
Topographical map of New York State

These rocks formed hundreds of millions of years ago. The Appalachian Mountains and the Catskill Mountains were formed starting roughly 480 and 200 million years ago, and the Adirondack Mountains were pushed up from the Earth's crust more recently, about 5 million years ago. These mountains cover much of the land area of the state, as you can see on the topographic map, although Long Island and some other parts of the state are lowlands. Then came the glaciers.

Glaciers and Glaciation

During the Ice Age, which started about 1.8 million years ago, New York State was covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Massive glaciers moved slowly across the land, scraping away rock from the mountains to carve deep valleys and change the surface of the state.

Glacial Rivers and Lakes

Receding glaciers left fertile soil behind, and the melting water from so much ice created new rivers and changed New York's topography. Glacial activity is the reason why New York State's rivers and lakes are located where they are. Glaciers created the Hudson River Valley, which runs north-south along the eastern edge of the state, and the Mohawk River Valley, which starts west of the Hudson but eventually joins it. You can see both of these river valleys if you look at the topographic map.

As well as creating river valleys, glacier movements also created lakes. The best-known glacial lakes are the Great Lakes. New York State borders on two of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. Proximity to the Great Lakes makes parts of upstate New York vulnerable to lake effect snow.

Glacial activity also created the Finger Lakes, a group of eleven lakes in western upstate New York. Around the Finger Lakes, the lake effect weather makes the climate good for growing grapes, and this area is known for its wine production.

Land Use in New York State

Patterns of high and low land, created by the glaciers, have determined how human settlers have used New York's land and natural resources. The human population of New York is concentrated in the lowlands, most obviously in New York City. In fact, all of the major cities in New York state are located in the lowlands, including Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo.


Rivers created by retreating glaciers were New York State's major transportation arteries until the railroad-building boom. Major rivers in New York include the Hudson and the Mohawk River, both shaped by glacial activity.

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