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North America

Geology and Geography

The continent is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean, on the west by the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Its coastline is long and irregular. With the exception of the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay is by far the largest body of water indenting the continent; others include the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortès). There are numerous islands off the continent's coasts; Greenland and the Arctic Archipelago, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the Alexander Archipelago, and the Aleutian Islands are the principal groups. Mt. McKinley (Denali; 20,237 ft/6,168 m), Alaska, is the highest point on the continent; the lowest point (282 ft/86 m below sea level) is in Death Valley, Calif.

The Missouri-Mississippi river system (c.3,740 mi/6,020 km long) is the longest of North America. Together with the Ohio River and numerous other tributaries, it drains most of S central North America and forms the world's greatest inland waterway system. Other major rivers include the Colorado, Columbia, Delaware, Mackenzie, Nelson, Rio Grande, St. Lawrence, Susquehanna, and Yukon. Lake Superior (31,820 sq mi/82,414 sq km), the westernmost of the Great Lakes, is the continent's largest lake. The Saint Lawrence Seaway, which utilizes the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, enables oceangoing vessels to penetrate into the heart of North America.

Physiographically, the Anglo-American section of the continent may be divided into five major regions: the Canadian Shield, a geologically stable area of ancient rock that occupies most of the northeastern quadrant, including Greenland; the Appalachian Mountains, a geologically old and eroded system that extends from the Gaspé Peninsula to Alabama; the Atlantic-Gulf Coastal Plain, a belt of lowlands widening to the south that extends from S New England to Mexico; the Interior Lowlands, which extend down the middle of the continent from the Mackenzie valley to the Gulf Coastal Plain and includes the Great Plains on the west and the agriculturally productive Interior Plains on the east; and the North American Cordillera, a complex belt of geologically young mountains and associated plateaus and basins, which extend from Alaska into Mexico and include two orogenic belts—the Pacific Margin on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east—separated by a system of intermontane plateaus and basins. The Coastal Plain and the main belts of the North American Cordillera continue south into Mexico (where the Mexican Plateau, bordered by the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental, is considered a continuation of the intermontane system) to join the Transverse Volcanic Range, a zone of high and active volcanic peaks S of Mexico City.

During the Ice Age of the late Cenozoic era, a continental ice sheet, centered west of Hudson Bay (the floor of which is slowly rebounding after being depressed by the great weight of the ice), covered most of N North America; glaciers descended the slopes of the Rocky Mts. and those of the Pacific Margin. Extensive glacial lakes, such as Bonneville (see under Bonneville Salt Flats), Lahontan, Agassiz, and Algonquin, were formed by glacial meltwater; their remnants are still visible in the Great Basin and along the edge of the Canadian Shield in the form of the Great Salt Lake, the Great Lakes, and the large lakes of W central Canada.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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