Physical Geography of North America

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The North American continent is a big place, with a diverse range of ecosystems, landforms, and climates. In this lesson, we'll look at the physical geography of North America and see how we can categorize all this land.

Physical Geography and North America

In the late 15th century, there was a theory that a person could sail west from Europe across a vast ocean, and eventually land somewhere around China or India. That mentality is what encouraged Christopher Columbus to undertake his voyage in 1492. Columbus was sailing along, heading for China, when he bumped into something unexpected: a massive continent that was definitely not China. It was North America, the northern half of the Western Hemisphere and third-largest continent in the world. Technically, the North American continent extends from the Aleutian Islands up north down through Central America and the Isthmus of Panama. That's a lot of land to cover, and geographers have found it helpful to categorize all of this in regions with similar traits. There are actually multiple ways to do this- by political borders, cultural regions, climate, etc. For now, let's focus on physical geography, the natural landforms of the Earth's surface, and we can take a little tour of this big continent.

The Caribbean

In terms of physical geography, North America can be divided into 5 distinct regions, each characterized by specific landforms and physical features. Let's start with the one that Columbus first encountered: the Caribbean. The Caribbean region is composed of the Caribbean Sea and the more than 7,000 islands that fill it. These islands are often surrounded by coral reefs, and are home to a diverse range of biomes, or ecosystems. Some of these islands contain high mountains, others desolate, rocky shores, while many have jungles teaming with life. The islands of the Caribbean are diverse, but all share similar climates, as well as similar risks such as hurricanes.

The Caribbean is home to thousands of islands, some more populated than others

The Eastern Region

Moving up into the continental regions, we encounter the next physical zone of North America: the Eastern Region. The Eastern Region extends from the Atlantic Coast west to the Appalachian Mountains, South along the Caribbean coast of Central America, and North to what is roughly the Canadian border today. Again, this is a diverse region, but is generally defined by reliable weather patterns featuring consistent seasons and abundant rain. This region gradually increases in elevation, reaching eventually into the Appalachians, which are the continent's oldest existing mountain range. The age of this region has made it rich in mineral and organic deposits with coal particularly found in abundance.

The Great Plains

Moving west past the Appalachians, we find a massive valley aptly named the Great Plains. The Great Plains stretch from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies, and are defined by an immense territory of relatively flat land covered in deep and fertile soil. The Great Plains were largely formed by the massive glaciers that covered North America up to roughly 15,000 BCE, which over millennia ground up mountains into fine soil that is full of mineral nutrients. What makes the Plains unique is that this region does not feature many of the dense forests found in the East. Instead, massive grasslands dominate the plains, largely thanks to extreme weather than can hit the region at various points in the year.

The Canadian Shield

Up until this point, we haven't talked very much about Canada. It's not that we're biased, it's just that the political border between the USA and Canada roughly corresponds to a geographic border as well. North of the Eastern Region and Great Plains is an elevated, and mostly flat, plateau called the Canadian Shield. This too was mostly made by glaciers, being polished and smoothed over millennia. However, it is distinct in several ways. For one, the soil tends not to be as deep, and much of the Canadian Shield is exposed bedrock. Weathering over time has filled this bedrock with numerous holes, creating the many lakes of the Canadian landscape. The Canadian Shield is also far enough north to be within a different climactic zone, and much of the Shield is tundra, characterized by extreme colds and year-round frozen soil.

It should be noted that some of the rocks in the Canadian Shield are extremely old. In fact, the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt, an outcrop of rocks in Northern Quebec, have been identified as quite possibly the oldest rocks in the world. Researchers have dated these rocks as roughly 4.28 billion years old, making them only 300 million years younger than the Earth itself.

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