Physical Geography of Central America

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  • 0:00 Central America
  • 0:38 Mountains
  • 1:58 The Coastal Lowlands
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Central America is what connects the continents of the Western Hemisphere, giving it some unique geographic features. In this lesson, we'll talk about the geography of Central America and see what defines this region.

Central America

In the Western Hemisphere, we've got a North America, and we've got a South America. Right in the middle, we've got - you guessed it - Central America. Central America is not really a continent, not like North and South America. Instead, it is a large isthmus, or land bridge between the continents. Central America contains seven nations: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Across these nations, however, are a variety of physical features, features that keep the Americas connected.

Central America
Central America

Mountains

For the most part, Central America can be divided into two sets of geographic features. Running north-south through the center of Central America, so really at the dead center of the hemisphere, are a series of mountain ranges. On either side of those mountains are coastal lowlands.

The mountains of Central America are mainly connected to the greater chain of mountains called the Rocky Mountains, which stretch across North America. Specifically, however, they belong to the Sierra Madre mountains, which is Spanish for the Mother Mountain Range. The Sierra Madres are a string of mountains that originate in the southern United States and run through Mexico. The western part of this range, the Sierra Madre Occidental, is the part that actually appears in Central America. The word 'occidental' means west.

The mountains of the Sierra Madres can be very high in elevation, some over 14,000 feet above sea level, although the highest peaks are in Mexico, which is technically part of North America. The Central American mountains are slightly lower, but just as rugged. The entire range, including the peaks of Central America, is volcanic. Fortunately, most of these volcanoes are dormant and actually have been very beneficial to the region. Volcanic soil is incredibly fertile, supporting the lush vegetation of Central America and providing the conditions that allowed ancient humans to develop agriculture.

Most mountains in Central America, including this one in Guatemala, are volcanic
Volcano

The Coastal Lowlands

With the mountain running through the center of the northern part of the isthmus and petering out towards the south, most of Central America is composed of coastal lowlands. With the mountains and the narrowness of Central America, weather conditions from both oceans and the peaks constantly mix to create some extreme weather. The mountains tend to be a bit drier, while the lowlands are humid and hot. The eastern lowlands bordering the Caribbean Sea receive a very high amount of rainfall, some up to 7,500 mm per year. By comparison, Seattle (famous for its rainy weather), gets about 965 mm per year. So we are talking about tropical rainforests in the truest sense of that term. The lowlands along the western border along the Pacific Ocean are also hot and humid but tend to be a little drier, except during a heavy rainy season from May to October.

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