A Comprehensive Rundown of North American Geography
Land of Diversity: North America
From the frosty Arctic Circle to the tropical heat of the Tropic of Cancer, North America is the third-largest continent on Earth and a realm of geographical wonders. It stretches over 5,000 miles, coming within 500 miles of both the North Pole and the Equator. With its east-west extent also measuring 5,000 miles, it covers an area of 9,355,000 square miles, occupying the northern chunk of the landmass often referred to as the New World or the Western Hemisphere.
Geographical Boundaries and Connections
North America is bounded by the Arctic Ocean in the north, the North Atlantic Ocean in the east, the Caribbean Sea in the south, and the North Pacific Ocean in the west. Its only land connection is to South America at the narrow Isthmus of Panama. Greenland, the world’s largest island, along with the Arctic Archipelago, the West Indies, Haida Gwaii, and the Aleutian Islands, are all associated with the continent.
The Great Regions of North America
North America can be divided into four significant regions. The Great Plains stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Arctic. The geologically young, mountainous west includes the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, California, and Alaska. The northeast hosts the raised but relatively flat plateau of the Canadian Shield. Lastly, the Central and Southern portions of the continent are occupied by the contiguous United States and Mexico, along with numerous smaller states in Central America and the Caribbean.
Natural Features and Climate
North America boasts a wealth of natural features, from the relatively young Rocky Mountains in the west to the considerably older Appalachian Mountains in the east. The northern half hosts an abundance of glacial lakes formed during the last glacial period, including the Great Lakes. The continent’s major continental divide is the Great Divide, which runs north and south down through the Rocky Mountains. The climate varies greatly, from Arctic cold in the north to tropical heat in the south, with steppes, known as prairies, in the central and western portions and deserts in parts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Geological Origins and Paleogeography
Seventy percent of North America is underlain by the Laurentia craton, which forms the Canadian Shield in central and eastern Canada and extends as far south as the U.S. states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. This continental crust started to form 4 billion years ago, with six microcontinents colliding to form the craton about 2 billion years ago. This core has been enlarged by plate tectonics, and the craton has remained relatively stable, with some rocks dating from 2.5 to 4 billion years ago.
Human Geography and Historical Development
The first inhabitants of North America are believed to have been ancient Asiatic peoples who migrated from Siberia during the last glacial advance. The descendants of these peoples, the various Native American and Eskimo-Inuit groups, have largely been supplanted by peoples from the Old World. People of European ancestry constitute the largest group, followed by those of African and Asian ancestry. In addition, there is a large group of Latin Americans who are of mixed European and Native American ancestry.
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