North America – World Geography For UPSC IAS (Notes)

In this Article of World Geography, I want to walk you through the North American continent – World Geography For UPSC.

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It can also be considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas.

It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

North America is the third largest continent by area, following Asia and Africa, and the fourth by population after Asia, Africa, and Europe.

North America

  • North America is the third largest continent after Asia and Africa. It covers an area of nearly 24 million square kilometers.
  • From south to north, it extends from 7°N to 85°N latitude and east to west from 20°W to 179° W.
  • In other words, its northern boundary is only about 500 kilometers away from the North Pole and its western boundary only 10 kilometers away from the International Date Line.
  • There are five time zones in North America.
  • The Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle passes through the continent and the 100°W longitude cuts through the center of the continent.
North america physical map
north america political map
List of countries in North America
North-America-Time-zone-Map
North-America-Time-zone
US-Timezones
US-Timezone
  • This huge landmass includes three large countries – Canada, the United States of America and Mexico, seven small states of Central America, and the islands of the West Indies.
  • The Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans surround North America in the east, west, and north respectively.
  • In the north-west, the Bering Strait separates it from Asia and in the south-east, the Isthmus of Panama joins it to South America. North America has a smooth coastline except for the existing in the north-west.
central america map
isthmus of panama map
bering strait

Regional Divisions Of North America

Region-wise North America can be classified into the following parts which are listed below:

  • Western Region
  • Great Plains
  • Canadian Shield
  • Eastern Region

Western Region

Young mountains rise in the west. The most familiar of these mountains are probably the Rockies, North America’s largest chain. They stretch from the province of British Columbia, Canada, to the U.S. state of New Mexico.

Great Plains

In the middle of the continent lies the Great Plain. Deep, rich soil blankets are large areas of the plains in Canada and the United States. Grain is grown in this region called the “Breadbasket of North America,” feeds a large part of the world. The Great Plains are also home to rich deposits of oil and natural gas.

Canadian Shield

The Canadian Shield is a raised but relatively flat plateau. It extends over eastern, central, and northwestern Canada. The Canadian Shield is characterized by a rocky landscape pocked by an astounding number of lakes.

Eastern Region

This varied region includes the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coastal plain. North America’s older mountain ranges, including the Appalachians, rise near the east coast of the United States and Canada. These areas have been mined for rich deposits of coal and other minerals for hundreds of years.

northamerica-physical-map-highres

Major Physical Divisions of North America

  • The Western Cordilleras
  • The Central Lowlands
  • The Eastern Highlands

The Western Cordilleras

  • The parallel ranges of young fold mountains run from Alaska and extend into South America as the Andes.
  • As they resemble twisted cords they are known as Cordilleras.
  • Fold mountains are formed when tectonic plates push the Earth’s crust and force it to form ridges and valleys.
  • Volcanic rocks from the base of fold mountains.
  • The Cordilleras are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Mount St. Helena is in the USA.
  • The snow-covered Cordilleras act as a barrier to moisture-laden winds and cause relief rainfall.
  • Some of the rivers flow westwards and some eastwards with the Cordilleras acting as the water divide between them.
  • Rocky Mountains, Alaska Range, Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and the Sierra Madre are the chief ranges of the Western Cordilleras
  • The Grand Canyon is a network of deep narrow valley cuts into the dry Colorado Plateau.
  • The Old Faithful” is a natural geyser (a hot waterspout). Once in every 90 minutes, the water from the geyser comes out roaring up to 60 meters high. It is found in Yellowstone National Park.
Western Cordillera of USA

The Central Lowlands

  • These stretch from around the Arctic Shores and Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
  • They are hemmed in by the Cordilleras in the west and the highlands in the east.
  • In the west, they are known as high plains because of the greater altitudes.
  • In the north, they form the Canadian Shield.
  • The Canadian Shield is a peneplain with a number of lakes. They are large enough to be called seas. They are the five Great lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.
  • Lake Winnipeg, Great Bear Lake, and Lake Athabaska are also on the Canadian Shield.
  • South of the Canadian Shield, the Central Lowlands are covered with layers of sediment brought by glaciers and rivers. It is a very fertile region.

Great Lakes of USA

great lakes of north america

Importance of great lakes region

  • Glacial lakes
  • The largest freshwater system
  • Together – they hold 1/5 th of the earth surface’s freshwater
  • Source of drinking water, irrigation, transport, sulfide and iron mining in the periphery
great lakes maps

The Eastern Highlands

  • They are old fold mountains that stretch from the valley of River St. Lawrence to Southern USA.
  • They are not high or as continuous as the Cordilleras.
  • The highlands are also known as the Laurentian highlands in Canada and the Appalachians in the USA and are less than 2,000 meters in height.
  • Their eastern slopes facing the Atlantic Ocean are very steep causing waterfalls in the streams that flow to the coast.

Canadian Shield

The Canadian Shield is a raised but relatively flat plateau. It extends over eastern, central, and northwestern Canada. The Canadian Shield is characterized by a rocky landscape pocked by an astounding number of lakes.


Gulfs of North America

A gulf is a portion of the ocean that penetrates land which is very large in size, shape, and depth. They are generally larger and more deeply indented than bays and often make excellent harbors. Many important trading centers are located on gulfs.

Gulfs of North America
  • Gulf of Mexico
  • Gulf of Alaska
  • Gulf of California
  • Gulf of St. Lawrence

Gulf of Mexico

It is an important economic site for three countries and surrounded by the United States, Mexico, and the island nation of Cuba. As one of the biggest gulf, it has a coastline of 5000 kilometers.

Gulf of Alaska

It is situated in the northwestern part of North America where two types of water run into each other, a light, almost electric blue merging with a darker slate-blue.

Gulf of California

It separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. It has a coastline of 4000 km( 2600 miles). It is considered to be one of the most diversified seas on the planet and is home to more than 5,000 species of microinvertebrates.

Gulf of St. Lawrence

It is a water outlet of the North American Great Lakes via Saint Lawrence river. It’s a semi-enclosed sea that covers 236,000 square kilometers (91,000 sq mi) and containing about 35,000 cubic kilometers (8,400 cu mi) of water, which results in an average depth of 148 meters (486 ft).

world-bay-gulf-map

Islands

The world famous islands of North America are:

Vancouver Island

It is situated on Canada’s Pacific Coast, is known for its mild climate and thriving arts community. It is separated from British Columbia mainland by the Strait of Georgia and Queen Charlotte Strait and from Washington by the Juan De Fuca Strait.

Vancouver Island

Greenland

It is a massive island situated between Atlantic and Arctic oceans and 80% of its land is covered by ice.

Greenland

Prince of Wales Island

It is one of the islands of the Alexander Archipelago in the Alaska Panhandle. This ranks four among the island in size.

Prince of Wales Island

Hawaii Island

It is otherwise known as the Big Island provides a vast canvas of natural environment and it is the largest island of the Hawaiian archipelago in the Central Pacific.

hawaiin-islands

Cuba Islands of Antilles

It is known as the sugar bowl of the World and its vast source of metallic resources include cobalt, nickel, iron ore, chromium, and copper. Other resources include timber, petroleum, silica, salt, and arable land.

Cuba Islands
Cuba Islands of Antilles

Bermuda Island

It is the territory of the British Islands in North Atlantic and famous for its pink sand beaches such as Elbow and Horseshoe Bay.

Bermuda Island

Drainage Pattern

There are many rivers in North America. River of North America can be grouped according to the seas they drain into, like

  • Rivers draining into the Gulf of Mexico
  • Rivers draining into the Atlantic Ocean
  • Arctic Ocean drainage
  • Pacific Ocean Drainage
Drainage Pattern of north america

1. The rivers draining into the Gulf of Mexico

These are the Mississippi, Missouri and their tributaries drain the whole of the lower Central Lowlands. They start from the Western Cordilleras. The Ohino and Tennesse. Rivers which are also tributaries of the Mississippi but have their source in the Appalachians are exceptions.

2. Rivers draining into the Atlantic Ocean

River St. Lawrence is the large river of this group. In this group the smaller rivers of the Fall Line can also be included.

3. Arctic Ocean drainage

River Mackenzie which has many shallow lakes on the Canadian Shield. River Nelson flow into the Hudson Bay.

4. Pacific Ocean Drainage

River Yukon in Alaska, Columbia, Fraser, and Colorado along the west coast. The Colorado River cuts across the Colorado plateau and forms the world’s most famous and attractive deep gorges, known as grand canons having nearly one km depth. Among the other rivers, the Yukon, the Fraser, the Snake, the Humboldt, the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, etc. are well known.


Seas in North America

Caribbean Sea

It is a sub-oceanic basin bordered by coasts of Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama; to the west by Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico; to the north
by the Greater Antilles islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico; and to the east by the north-south chain of the Lesser Antilles, consisting of the island arc that extends from the Virgin Islands in the northeast to Trinidad.

Seas in North America

Beaufort Sea

It is situated in the north of Canada and Alaska is known to be the marginal sea of Arctic Ocean covering an area of 184,000 sq. miles and the average depth of 3,239 ft (1,004 m).

Hudson Bay

It is known as the second largest bay in the world which encompasses an area of 1,230,000 square kilometer (470,000mi) and large body of Salt water.

Labrador Sea

It is bordered by continental shelves and separates Canada from Green Land.

Bering Sea

It is situated on the extreme North of North America separating the continents of Asia and north America.

Inland Drainage System

The Great Basin area in the Rocky Mountains (Middle) has rivers which do not reach the coast, but terminate in the land. This is the Inland Drainage System.

The rivers are small, seasonal and end up in saline lakes.

Great Basin area in the Rocky Mountain

Lakes in North America

  • The Lakes of the Canadian Shield are freshwater bodies.
  • The Great Salt Lake between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada has a high salt content and is an area of ‘Inland drainage’.
  • Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada, and Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania in the USA.
  • Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, and Michigan in the USA.
  • Lake Ontario in Ontario, and New York in the USA.
  • Lake St Clair in Ontario, and Michigan in the USA.
  • Lake Superior in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin in the USA.
north-america-lakes-map
Great lakes

Resources

resources north america

Agriculture

From the freezing Arctic to the tropical jungles of Central America, North America enjoys more climate variation than any other continent. Almost every type of ecosystem is represented somewhere on the continent, from coral reefs in the Caribbean to the ice sheet in Greenland. These differences contribute to North America’s variety of agricultural industries, which are often divided by climate zone:

  • tropical zone,
  • subtropical zone,
  • cool temperate zone,
  • dry zone

Tropical Zone –

  • Farmer’s harvest oranges, sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, and bananas. These crops grow on coastal plains and humid mountain slopes. Cotton and hemp are cultivated in the warmer and drier intermediate climate zone. These crops are important exports for Central American countries.

Sub – tropical Zone –

  • Fruits, vegetables, cotton, and tobacco are predominant in the warm, subtropical zones of northern Mexico and the United States.
  • Important agricultural areas in this zone include the Rio Grande Valley (citrus fruits) in the U.S. state of Texas and Mexico, California’s Central Valley (fruits and vegetables), the Gulf Coastal Plain (vegetables), and the sandy valleys of the Appalachians (cotton and tobacco).
  • These areas benefit from ample rain and warm air currents.

Cool Temperate Zone –

  • Important agricultural areas in this climate include the Finger Lakes region of New York in the U.S.; the Niagara Peninsula in the Canadian province of Ontario; the Columbia River basin in the U.S. state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia; and the valleys of the Appalachians.
  • These areas benefit from excellent drainage and predictable, established frosts.
  • The Dairy Belt, Corn Belt, and Wheat Belt are three agricultural areas in the continent’s cool temperate zones.
    • Dairy animals, including cows, goats, and sheep, feed on the hay and hardy small grains that thrive in New England and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region along the Atlantic coast. This is the Dairy Belt.
    • The Corn Belt, located between the Ohio River and the lower Missouri River, receives ample water and strong summer sun, ideal for corn and soybeans.
    • West of the Corn Belt, the Wheat Belt stretches from the U.S. state of Kansas through the Canadian Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. This vast area of the Great Plains allows wheat to be cultivated in both winter and spring.

Dry Zone –

  • Dry zones, common in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, are ideally suited for livestock ranching.
  • Ranches with thousands of cattle are common in this region. Traditionally, livestock fed on locally grown fodder such as prairie grasses. However, irrigation for fruit and cotton farming has drained water supplies in the region.
  • Native grasses cannot nourish the huge herds of livestock kept by ranchers. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and other livestock are less likely to graze than to eat corn-based feed.
  • In fact, most of the corn grown in the Corn Belt is feeder corn used for livestock feed.

Forestry

Forestry is the management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, logging companies harvest cedar, fir, and spruce trees.

Lumber from these trees is exported around the world for construction. Some of the continent’s largest paper mills are found in these temperate rain forests. In addition to paper, paper mills produce cardboard and fiberboard.

Forestry is a major economic activity for much of North America. In the United States, the timber industry is strong in the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf states, and South Atlantic coastal plains. In Canada, forestry is a major industry in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia.

Mining

North America is a leading producer of coal, used in energy production; bauxite used to create aluminum; iron and copper, both used in construction; and nickel, used to create steel, which North American companies export around the world. Gold and silver mines operate in the western part of the continent. Visitors to Crater of Diamonds State Park, a mine in the U.S. state of Arkansas, can search for their own diamonds.

Coal

  • Coal remains a primary industry for the U.S. and is often linked with states near the Appalachians.
  • Coal can be mined underground or in large, open pits. Around 20% of the World’s Coal is mined in Pennsylvania, USA.

Metallic minerals

  • Large deposits of iron ore are found in the areas around Lake Superior and the Eastern part of the Canadian shield. Iron is also found in the southern Appalachians.
  • The USA is one of the largest producers of copper in the world. It is mined extensively around the great lakes and the Rocky Mountains.
  • Mexico is the world’s largest producer of silver. Large deposits of silver are found in the USA and Canada too. It is a byproduct of the Zinc industry as well. Chihuahua is the largest silver mine in the World. It is in Mexico.
  • Canada and the US produce a substantial amount of Gold which is mined in the Rocky Mountains. California and Alaska saw the Gold rush in the early 1900s.
  • Canada produces about 90% of the world’s Nickle.
  • Canada is also the largest producer of Asbestos, Zinc, and platinum and the second-largest producer of cobalt, Uranium, and radium. Note that China is also one of the World’s largest producer of Asbestos.
  • The USA is one of the world’s largest producer of Uranium and Sulphur.

Drilling

North America is home to vast deposits of oil and natural gas, which are drilled for energy and fuel. Oil and gas extraction are key elements of North America’s economy. The United States, Canada, and Mexico are among the world’s top oil producers.

The Athabasca tar sands, in the Canadian province of Alberta, are the world’s largest reservoir of heavy crude oil. More than 20 national and international extraction projects are established in the Athabasca tar sands.

Large reserves of Petroleum are found in North America in a great arc from Alaska to Texas in the USA. The United States is the top oil-producing country in the world, with an average of 17.87 million b/d, which accounts for 18% of the world’s production.

The U.S. overtook Russia in 2012 for the No. 2 spots and surpassed former leader Saudi Arabia in 2013 to become the world’s top oil producer. Much of the increased U.S. production is attributable to fracking in the shale formations in Texas and North Dakota. The U.S. has been a net exporter of oil (i.e., exports exceed imports) since early 2011.

Mexico leads other North American countries as one of the top oil exporters in the world, largely because of its reserves in and around the Gulf. (Although both the United States and Canada produce more oil than Mexico, they also consume far more. Both countries are mostly importers, not exporters, of oil and natural gas.)

Important Industrial Centers of North America

United States of America:

West Coast Important Cities –

  • Seattle – world’s largest aircraft assembly center. Lumbering, fish canning, aluminum smelting electrical engineering are important industries.
  • San Francisco – known as ‘The City of Golden Gate’. Famous for oil refining and ship building.
  • Los Angeles – known for its film industry – Hollywood.

Great Lake Region-

  • Famous for heavy industries and iron and steel.
  • Important cities – Chicago, Pittsburg, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, etc.
  • Detroit – greatest automobile region of USA
  • Akron – world’s largest synthetic rubber and tyre making center.
  • Pittsburg – highest production of Iron and steel

Texas –

  • Houston – Oil refinery, shipbuilding, chemical, and machinery are important industries located here.

Canada

  • Hamilton – located at the head of Lake Ontario. It is known as the Birmingham of Canada. Center for iron and steelworks and engineering.
  • Sudbury – Located on the shore of Lake Huron. It is one of the most productive mining areas of Canada which yields nickel, Platinum, copper, etc.
  • Arvida – Situated on Saguenay River. It has the largest aluminum smelter in the world.
  • Sarnia – Located on the shore of Lake Huron. It has the largest oil refinery in the world.
  • Ottawa – Paper and pulp and sawmilling

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