Overview of the Geography of the United States

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

The United States is the third largest country in the world, as measured by land mass. Countries that large have varying areas, geographic features, and populations. In this lesson, we'll discuss the geography of the United States.

Just the Numbers

The United States is located in the Northern Hemisphere, boarded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, the east by the Atlantic Ocean, the south by Mexico, and the north by Canada. All in, the United States is about 3.8 million square miles. Over 17% of that land is Alaska, the largest of the United States, and Rhode Island, with just 1,545 square miles, is the smallest state.

US Map, compared to Alaska

The United States is divided into 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. Sometimes called the lower 48 states or the contiguous states, all of the states except Hawaii and Alaska adjoin each other. Hawaii is an island state located in the Pacific Ocean and Alaska is located northwest of Canada.

The 3.8 million square miles that makes up the United States makes it the third largest country in the world, behind Russia and Canada. While Canada is just slightly larger than the United States in land mass, Russia is almost twice as large.

US Map

Population wise, the United States is also the third largest country behind China and India. Based on the CIA's 2014 Factbook, China's population was about 1.35 billion, barely ahead of India's 1.24 billion. Those two countries are really in a league of their own, as the United States comes up third with about 320 million.

Geographic Regions

For Census purposes, the United States is divided into four regions: the Northeast, Midwest, West, and South. In 2014, about 17% of the population lived in in the Northeast, 21% in the Midwest, 24% in the West, and 38% in the South.

That distribution has not always been the case. When the country was established, most of the population was in the Northeast and South. Because immigrants were primarily coming from European countries, the East Coast of the U.S. was the closest destination in the U.S.

The growth in the Midwest and West has largely occurred over the last 160 years. As the population increased, people wanted more room to live. Encouraged by things like the cross country railroad, the California Gold Rush, and the ability to farm the Midwest began a significant migration west.

US Census Regions

Geographic Features

There are two major mountain ranges in the United States that run north-south and, in many ways, have contributed to the population distribution. The first is the Appalachian Mountains which run from the Northeast in Maine and south into Georgia. The second range is the Rocky Mountains, which begin in Canada and then go through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona before continuing into Mexico.

The major rivers in the United States are the Missouri, Mississippi, Colorado, Rio Grande, and Columbia. The Missouri ends up merging with the Mississippi around St. Louis, Missouri. The Columbia River is in the Northwest. The Rio Grande is the Southwest's river that heads south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The Colorado River start in Utah, goes into Colorado, then turns back west and heads through Utah back towards the Pacific Ocean.

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