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What is the Physical Geography of Africa?

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

Explore the beautiful work of Africa's physical geography. Learn what distinguishes physical geography as a separate branch of study and how Africa's physical geography makes it such a unique place.

Physical Geography

Did you know that Africa is the second-largest of Earth's continents? Its size and position on the globe mean it is home to a wide variety of landforms, ecosystems, and living organisms. Let's explore the physical geography of Africa to understand its natural diversity and wonders better.

Geography is the study of spatial aspects on Earth, whether those are places, human-defined national borders, the physical features of the land, or the movements of phenomena around the world. Physical geography focuses on the spatial aspects of the natural world, such as landforms, bodies of water, ecosystems, weather patterns, and much more. It does not involve humans and human activity except where such activity impacts the natural world. It remains a diverse field of study; thus, we will only be able to focus on key aspects of Africa's physical geography.


As the second-largest continent, Africa covers over 30 million square kilometers. Bordered by oceans and seas on nearly all sides, the continent has approximately 30,500 kilometers of coastline. The oceans and seas forming the coastline where they meet the continent are the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea.

In only one area does Africa border another continent by land, connecting to Asia via the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt. An isthmus is a narrow strip or small area of land connecting two larger landmasses. Bodies of water border an isthmus on two sides with land on the other two sides.

Satellite image of Africa
Satellite Image of Africa


Due to the tectonic plate movement of Africa, there are no large mountain ranges caused by crust folding under pressure from convergent plate boundaries. Instead, there are a series of smaller ranges scattered across the continent, while the largest mountains in Africa are volcanic.

The largest of Africa's mountains is Mt. Kilimanjaro. The dormant volcano is located in Tanzania and has a peak elevation of 5,895 meters above sea level. Significant mountain ranges in Africa include

  • the volcanic Virunga Mountains in the east
  • the Nuba Hills in Sudann
  • the Rwenzori Mountains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and
  • the Atlas Mountains along Africa's northern coast

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the largest mountain in Africa
Mt. Kilimanjaro

Great Rift Valley & the Horn of Africa

Another significant landform of Africa is the Great Rift Valley, a valley filled with deep, connected trenches in the eastern African countries of Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The valley formed at a weak point in the Earth's crust caused by the separation of the African and Arabian tectonic plates. It's home to many of Africa's volcanoes, with numerous lakes occupying the trenches.

The same forces of divergent plate tectonics are also responsible for the Horn of Africa, a peninsula on the eastern coast of Africa that juts into the Arabian Sea and curves around the southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula.

African Rivers

The most famous African river is the Nile, a long river flowing northward from its origin in Sudan to its mouth in Egypt. This is where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea approximately 6,700 kilometers away.

Other significant African rivers are the Zambezi, the Congo, and the Niger Rivers.

  • The Zambezi originates near the border between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, flowing 2,574 kilometers to empty into the Indian Ocean.
  • The Congo River is the second-longest African river, flowing westward for 4,370 kilometers through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, and Angola before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The Niger River runs 3,180 kilometers through western Africa, first flowing northeast before turning southeast to drain into the Atlantic Ocean.

Effects of the Equator on Climate

Africa is the only continent straddling the equator that also has territory touched by both the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This creates diverse climate zones. Along the equator, we find areas of dense tropical rainforest, while deserts lie both north and south of this zone.

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