Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Geography of the United States
The western half of the northern boundary is exactly at 49° N (apart from Alaska being more north and Vancouver Island, Canada reaching more south). At the eastern half the northern boundary is more south, except for Lake of the Woods, the most northerly part of the U.S. apart from Alaska. In the United States, there are Extreme Points that extend farther than any other area of land. Each point extends the farthest in a certain direction.
The U.S. is the world's third largest country after Russia and Canada with an area roughly:
- slightly smaller than Canada
- slightly more than one and a quarter times the size of Australia
- slightly less than 39 and half times the size of the United Kingdom
- 14.3 times the size of the French Republic
- half the size of Russia or
- three-tenths the size of Africa
- half the size of South America
- slightly larger than Brazil or China
- two and a half times the size of Western Europe
The geography of the United States varies across its immense area. Within the contential U.S., eight distinct physiographic divisions exist, though each is composed of yet small physiographic subdivisions. These major divisions are the:
- Laurentian Highlands - part of the Canadian shield that extends into the northern United States Great Lakes area.
- Atlantic Plain - the coastal regions of the eastern and southern parts includes the continental shelf, the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf Coast.
- Appalachian Highlands - lying on the eastern side of the United States, it includes the Appalachian Mountains, Adirondacks and New England province.
- Interior Plains - part of the interior contentintal United States, it includes much of what is called the Great Plains.
- Interior Highlands - also part of the interior contentintal United States, this division includes the Ozark Plateau.
- Rocky Mountain System - one branch of the Cordellian system lying far inland in the western states.
- Intermontane Plateaus - also divided into the Columbia Plateau, the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range Province, it is a system of plateaus, basins, ranges and gorges between the Rocky and Pacific Mountain Systems. It is the setting for the Grand Canyon, the Great Basin and Death Valley.
- Pacific Mountain System - the coastal mountain ranges and features in the west coast of the United States.
The Atlantic coast of the United States is, with minor exceptions, low. Here, lie the Atlantic Plain and Appalachian Highlands. The Appalachian Highland owes its oblique northeast-southwest trend to crustal deformations which in very early geological time gave a beginning to what later came to be the Appalachian mountain system. This system had its climax of deformation so long ago (probably in Permian time) that it has since then been very generally reduced to moderate or low relief. It owes its present day altitude either to renewed elevations along the earlier lines or to the survival of the most resistant rocks as residual mountains. The oblique trend of this coast would be even more pronounced but for a comparatively modern crustal movement, causing a depression in the northeast resulting in an encroachment of the sea upon the land. Additionally, the southeastern section has undergone an elevation resulting in the advance of the land upon the sea.
The following map below, known as a physiographical map , shows geographical and topographical information about the regions of the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. used by earth scientists. The map indicates the age of the exposed surface as well as the type of terrain. More information about the regions is covered in several subarticles found in the additional topics subsection below.
|Physiographic Regions of the United States|
While the east coast is relatively low, the Pacific coast is, with few exceptions, hilly or mountainous. This coast has been defined chiefly by geologically recent crustal deformations, and hence still preserves a greater relief than that of the Atlantic.
The low Atlantic coast and the hilly or mountainous Pacific coast foreshadow the leading features in the distribution of mountains within the United States. The east coast Appalachian system, originally forest covered, is relatively low and narrow and is bordered on the southeast and south by an important coastal plain. The Cordilleran System on the western side of the continent is lofty, broad and complicated having two branches, the Rocky Mountain System and the Pacific Mountain System. In between these, lie the Intermontaine Plateaus. Heavy forests cover the northwest coast, but elsewhere trees are found only on the higher ranges below the Alpine region. The intermontane valleys, plateaus and basins range from treeless to desert with the very arid region being in the southwest.
The Laurentian Highlands, the Interior Plains and the Interior Highlands lie between the two coasts, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico northward, far beyond the national boundary, to the Arctic Ocean. The central plains are divided by a hardly perceptible height of land into a Canadian and a United States portion. It is from the United States side, that the great Mississippi system discharges southward to the Gulf of Mexico. The upper Mississippi and some of the Ohio basin is the semi-arid prairie region, with trees originally only along the watercourses. The uplands towards the Appalachians were included in the great eastern forested area, while the western part of the plains has so dry a climate that its native plant life is scanty, and in the south it is practically barren. See also: List of North American deserts
- Lowest point: Death Valley, Inyo County, California 282 feet below sea level (-86m)
- Highest point: Mount McKinley, Denali Borough, Alaska 20,320 feet above sea level (+6,194m)
The continental U.S. is often subdivided into six major cultural regions which not so coincidentally often share common natural features and terrain as well as similar ethnic groups. Those regions are:
- New England - One of the regions first settled by European immigrants, this region lies in the upper north-east of the U.S. geographically. New England is dominated by rocky uplands and sandy outwash plains and with a climate having stark seasonal changes.
- Mid-Atlantic - Another region settled earlier on in the U.S. history and home to the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. Its geography is varied, including forested ridges and marshy lowlands.
- South - Culturally perhaps the most different of the states, the South still maintains an identity developed prior to and during the Civil War. The South consists mostly of low coastal areas drained by comparatively few rivers. There is a wide band of piedmont soil, mostly thick clay, and forbidding mountain mazes.
- Midwest - This region was settled during the late 1700s and early 1800s well after the east coast. Many of these states lie on the Great Plains.
- Southwest - The Southwest has a drier climate than the Midwest. The population is less dense and, with strong Spanish-American and Native American components, more ethnically varied than neighboring areas. Outside the cities, the region is a land of open spaces, much of which is desert. The magnificent Grand Canyon is located in this region, as is Monument Valley.
- Western states - The west is home to the pacific coast of the United States as well as many gorges, plateaus and mountain ranges, the most famous being the Rocky Mountains.
For more information on other "cultural" regions of the U.S., see List of regions of the United States.
Climate: mostly temperate, but tropical in Hawaii and Florida, arctic in Alaska, semiarid in the Great Plains west of the Mississippi River, and arid in the Great Basin of the southwest; low winter temperatures in the northwest are ameliorated occasionally in January and February by warm chinook winds from the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains
Terrain: vast central plain, mountains in west, hills and low mountains in east; rugged mountains and broad river valleys in Alaska; rugged, volcanic topography in Hawaii
Land use: arable land: 19% permanent crops: 0% permanent pastures: 25% forests and woodland: 30% other: 26% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 207,000 sq km (1993 est.) Natural hazards: tsunamis, volcanoes, and earthquake activity around Pacific Basin; hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts; tornadoes in the midwest and southeast; mud slides in California; forest fires in the west; flooding; permafrost in northern Alaska, a major impediment to development
Environment - current issues: air pollution resulting in acid rain in both the US and Canada; the US is the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels; water pollution from runoff of pesticides and fertilizers; very limited natural fresh water resources in much of the western part of the country require careful management; desertification
Environment - international agreements: party to: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic Treaty, Climate Change, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, Whaling signed, but not ratified: Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants, Air Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds, Biodiversity, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Hazardous Wastes
The United States holds many areas for the use and enjoyment of the public. These include National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, Wilderness areas, and other areas. For lists of areas, see the following articles:
- List of U.S. National Parks
- United States National Monument
- List of U.S. National Forests
- List of U.S. wilderness areas
- List of miscellaneous U.S. public areas
- Extreme points of the United States
- Geography of the Eastern United States
- Geography of the Interior United States
- Geography of the Western United States
- Geography of Puerto Rico
- Regions of the United States
- Historic regions of the United States
- List of US government designations for places
- List of islands of the United States
- List of valleys of the United States
- List of mountains of the United States
- List of North American deserts
- Public Land Survey System
- USGS: Tapestry of Time and Terrain
- Geology of the Conterminous United States
- Atlas Maps - The National Atlas of the United States of America
- United State Map - Geography of the US
-  - Microsoft/Expedia - for street level maps, select North America, not World
-  Yahoo! Maps
-  - ESRI atlas of the US
-  - Topozone
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