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Chapter 2: North America’s Environmental Setting
Chapter 2 will likely be one of the most difficult chapters for students to fully
comprehend, unless they have taken coursework in physical geography. Many
students may be unfamiliar with the basic physical processes that shape North
America’s landscapes. A helpful way to approach teaching Chapter 2 is to think of
this as an opportunity to introduce them to these basic processes, using examples
from North America. This will give students a broad overview that can form the basis
for in-depth coverage of these processes and patterns in the regional chapters.
1. Landforms, Hydrology, Soils
a. Landforms and Geomorphic Processes in North America
b. Hydrologic Patterns
2. North America’s Physiographic Provinces
3. Weather and Climate
a. North American Climate Zones
4. Biogeography and Ecology
c. Grasslands and Steppes
d. Deserts and Steppes
e. Mediterranean Scrub
f. Subtropical Wetland
5. Ecosystems and Watersheds
Student Learning Outcomes
Explain the difference between physical geography and human geography.
Identify the major geomorphic processes that shaped the Appalachian
Mountains as compared to the Rocky Mountains through time.
List and describe North America’s 12 major physiographic provinces.
Compare and contrast a shield volcano and a composite cone volcano in North
Distinguish between an ecosystem and a biome.
Explain why environmental planners often prefer to use a map showing an
area’s watershed instead of a map based on political boundaries.
List and discuss the impacts of four climate controls on weather and climate
in North America.
Compare and contrast the different kinds of landforms created by continental
glaciers as compared to alpine glaciers.
Differentiate between North America’s five major river drainage systems
according to the general direction of their flow outward to the sea.
Describe the major temperature and moisture properties of a Polar
continental air mass and a Tropical maritime air mass.
Differentiate between North America’s Mediterranean, Continental Midlatitude,
and West Coast Marine climate zones.
Explain why a comparison of maps showing (1) general climate zones, (2)
landforms, (3) soil types, and (4) vegetation biomes may prove useful for
Teaching Strategies for Chapter 2: North America’s Environmental Setting
1. Human versus Physical Geography
Since many students will be unfamiliar with the discipline of geography, Chapter 2
provides an opportunity to introduce them to geography’s subdisciplines. When
explaining the differences between human geography and physical geography, it is
important to emphasize the ways that the physical and cultural landscapes interact.
The physical landscape has had significant impacts on people’s settlement patterns
and activities, so understanding the dynamics of the physical landscape allows us to
make sense of settlement patterns and the distribution of economic activities. An
obvious example of this can be seen in the distribution of the major cities of North
America. Almost all large cities in North America are located near a port or on a
major waterway. Although people are less likely to travel by boat than they were in
previous centuries, even today shipping of goods is still a major part of North
America’s political economy.
Human activities have also had a major impact on the physical landscapes of North
America. We can see this impact in the way that humans have reworked the land
through our economic activities: logging, mining, and agriculture, which have
produced environmental problems such as habitat destruction and pollution. In some
parts of North America, hydrologic systems have also been reworked through
damming, draining, and canal building.
2. Landforms and Geomorphic Processes in North America
An easy way to approach teaching basic geomorphic processes is to split them into
two groups: mountain-building processes and processes of erosion and deposition.
Mountain building happens through a variety of tectonic processes such as the
movement of tectonic plates and volcanism. Today the most tectonically active part
of North America is the far western coastal portion of the continent. Fault lines
extend from California to Alaska, where the North American plate is rubbing up
against Juan De Fuca Plate and the Pacific Plate. The U.S. Geological Survey
Earthquake Hazards program website (http://earthquake.usgs.gov/) is a great place
to look for additional information on tectonic processes, including animated graphics,
photos, and Google Earth files.
Most of North America’s active volcanoes are located near this tectonically active
zone as well. The Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest includes some active
volcanoes, such as Mount St. Helens, which erupted in 1980 and again in 2004.
However, two of the most famous areas of volcanism in North America are
associated with hot spots in the mantle. Both the Yellowstone caldera and the
Hawaiian Islands are being formed by hotspots. Composite cone volcanoes such as
those in the Cascades erupt explosively, shooting out pyroclastic debris and
poisonous gases. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people in the blast
zone. In contrast, shield volcanoes, such as the Hawaiian volcanoes, produce a less
viscose type of lava that is able to flow across the landscape. Shield volcanoes are
generally much less dangerous because their eruptions are considerably less violent,
although active lava flows do sometimes destroy homes and property.
Much of North America has been shaped by glaciation. Glacial activity produces a
number of distinctive landforms. There are two different types of glaciation:
continental glaciers and alpine glaciers. Continental glaciers covered virtually all of
what is now Canada and much of the Great Lakes region and New England during
the last ice age. These continental glaciers carved out the basins of the Great Lakes
and left much of this region scraped to the bedrock. In some places continental
glaciers deposited sediments in distinctive patterns called drumlins and moraines.
While continental glaciers have virtually disappeared from the North American
continent, alpine glaciers still exist, particularly in the Rocky Mountains and the
Cascades. These alpine glaciers form dramatic landscape features such as horns,
arêtes, tarns, and cirques. The best way to fix these features in students’ minds is to
show contrasting photos of landscapes shaped by glacial ice versus those shaped by
fluvial processes. In particular, the difference between V-shaped river valleys and Ushaped glacial valleys is easy to visually distinguish. Additionally, arêtes and horns
formed by glaciers are distinctively thin, sharp peaks when viewed in contrast to
mountain tops shaped by rainfall and fluvial processes. This can be easily seen by
contrasting the much weathered forms of the Appalachians with the glacial peaks of
the Rockies. The website Teaching Geomorphology in the 21st Century
(http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/geomorph/index.html) has a large
number of resources related to teaching geomorphic processes. With regard to
glacial processes and climate change, there are a number of Google Earth files
showing glacial changes over the last 50 years.
Another easy contrast to make is between coastlines mainly shaped by erosional
processes versus depositional processes. In general, eroded coastlines can be seen
on the Pacific Coast of North America and depositional coastlines along the Atlantic
Coast. Photos of narrow erosional coastlines with features such as sea cliffs, wavecut platforms, and sea stacks can be contrasted with the wide beaches, spits, bay
barriers, and lagoons of the East Coast.
3. Hydrologic Patterns
Understanding North America’s major drainage systems and continental divides will
help students make sense of settlement and transportation patterns. Relating
drainage and transportation systems will help students remember the patterns of
both. For example, the Mississippi–Missouri Basin served as a major transportation
system for much of the central United States. The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence system
provided a transportation network for settlement and trade in Quebec and the Great
Lakes region. With the building of the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes became connected
to the East Coast. Similarly, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was built near Chicago to
form a navigable link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi drainage. This
linkage was a key factor in the development of Chicago as a regional trading hub,
promoting the city’s growth beyond that of others in the region.
Some drainage patterns can be easily associated with major mountain ranges that
form continental divides. East of the Appalachians, river systems flow into the
Atlantic, and west of the Sierras and Cascades, major river systems flow into the
Pacific. Between the Rockies and the Appalachians, the great Mississippi–Missouri
Basin drains into the Gulf of Mexico. A portion of the region in between the Sierras
and the Rockies forms the Great Basin, a large internal drainage system. If students
can associate the relationships between the major mountain ranges and the drainage
(or early transportation) patterns, they will have a better grasp of the basic
geography of North America.
4. North America’s Physiographic Provinces
North America’s landform regions (or physiographic provinces) can be seen in Figure
1.9. These landform regions give students an understanding of the physical context
of the regional divisions discussed in the following regional chapters. A physiographic
province is defined by its geomorphic features and underlying structural elements.
So, for example, both the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains form their own
It should be noted that map reading and interpretation is a cognitive skill that is
better developed in some people than others. One way to help students develop
these skills is to give them an exercise that asks them to read a map and translate
the features on the map into a journey. So, for example, the exercise might ask
them to list the major physical features or physiographic provinces they would
encounter during a journey from New York to San Francisco. They would be expected
to list them in the order they would be encountered. Of course, what the students
list would depend on the level of detail on the map and the exact route they choose.
It may seem like this is a rather easy task, but this type of exercise helps students
develop their mental map of the region.
5. Weather and Climate
Understanding the difference between weather and climate is key to students’
comprehension of climate change and its impacts. This difference may seem obvious,
but it is important that students understand that while day-to-day variations in
weather conditions are highly variable and difficult to predict, long-term patterns
(climate) are much more stable and predictable. While students will be familiar with
climatic variables such as temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, and
precipitation, many students will have little understanding of the physical processes
that produce climatic differences.
Students will know that temperatures are generally warmer near the equator and
cooler towards the poles and that temperature generally decreases at higher
elevations. However, many will not have considered the differences between heating
and cooling potential of land and water. Because water heats and cools more slowly
than land, places near oceans tend to have less temperature variations than places
further inland. Another important concept that many students struggle with is the
relationship between topography and precipitation patterns. Understanding
orographic precipitation and rain shadows will help students make educated guesses
about differences in precipitation across the region. Students should know that the
windward sides of mountain ranges generally get large amounts of orographic
precipitation and that the leeward sides get very little precipitation because of the
rain shadow effect. Since westerly winds move weather patterns across the continent
in generally a west to east pattern, this means that in most parts of North America
the western sides of mountain ranges will get significantly more precipitation than
the eastern sides.
One helpful way to help students become familiar with North American climate zones
and weather patterns is to teach them to read and understand climographs. In
addition to the charts that are presented in Figure 2.13, you can find additional
climographs online. The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of
Nebraska Lincoln has a page of climographs for many major cities in the United
ctedUSCities.aspx). Once students become familiar with the climate zones of North
America, you might give them a climograph without identifying information and have
them make an educated guess about what climate zone it is located in.
6. Biogeography and Ecology
Students should understand that patterns of natural vegetation are closely related to
underlying soils and climate patterns. On a very basic level the presence or absence
of forests can be related to moisture levels. Trees need higher levels of soil moisture
during the growing season than other types of vegetation. The six major biome types
can be seen in Figure 2.17. Again, particular biomes are associated with particular
climate types. Once students are familiar with these biomes, they should be able to
associate them with example climographs.
7. Geographic Information Systems and Ecosystem Management
The physical landscape of North America has been significantly modified since the
beginning of European settlement. Today government agencies such as the U.S. EPA
use management tools like geographic information systems to assist in the
management of the regions’ natural resources. Rather than managing natural
resources based on arbitrary political boundaries, regions based on physical
geography such as the ecoregions shown in Figure 2.18 or the watersheds shown in
Figure 2.5 are used.
Chapter 2 is organized around the three main subdisciplines of physical geography:
geomorphology, climatology, and biogeography. Understanding the regional
geomorphic, climatic, and biological patterns will set the stage for understanding how
natural systems and humans have interacted in the following chapters.
2.1 Develop a presentation based on a set of comparative maps of your local
region (e.g., landforms, vegetation, climate, and soils maps) that defends
some of the reasons why many of the patterns shown on these maps look
2.2 Develop a promotional brochure to advertise one of North America’s
physiographic provinces as an appropriate site for development of a new
2.3 Speculate on some of the impacts of global climate change on a group of
local indigenous residents who live in a small village located on edge of the
Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic region.
Climate change in arctic regions has melted permafrost, producing unstable
foundations for buildings and making difficult travel through wetland areas. In
addition, melting ice flows have negatively impacted wildlife populations in the region,
making traditional hunting more difficult.
2.4 Develop a list of recommendations for preserving the natural vegetation
and streamflow patterns of an ecosystem located near your hometown that
is slated for development.
Answers to Review Questions
1. How are the location patterns of earthquakes, volcanoes, and fault lines
in North America related to its tectonic plate boundaries?
Fault lines generally mark the edges of tectonic plates or exist very close to these
boundaries. Earthquakes most often take place near these boundaries as well.
Volcanoes are often located within a few hundred miles of these boundaries and are
formed as one plate is forced under the edge of another. However, volcanoes and
tectonic activities are not always associated with plate boundaries; for example, the
Hawaiian volcanoes and the Yellowstone caldera are both located far from plate
boundaries and associated with hotspots in the Earth’s crust.
2. What have been some of the different erosional impacts of glaciers,
running water, wind, and wave action on the geomorphology of the
American and Canadian West?
Glaciers, water, wind, and waves are each associated with distinctive landforms.
Continental glaciers scoured much of Canada and the northern United States, leaving
behind distinctive hills and ridges of sediment. Alpine glaciers create sharp mountain
peaks and U-shaped valleys in contrast to V-shaped valleys formed by running water.
In some parts of North America wind has deposited sediment to form highly fertile
but erodible soils called loess, and, in other places, wind-blown soil forms large dune
complexes. The western coast of North America features many dramatic landforms
shaped by wave action such as sea cliffs, wavecut platforms, and sea stacks.
3. What are some examples that illustrate the relationship between
topographic barriers and human settlement on the North American
continent during the Euro-American era?
The pattern of cities located along the fall line to the east of the Appalachians is an
example of how the limits of navigable rivers and the location of waterfalls provided
an ideal location for early settlements. Another example is the gap in the
Appalachians in which the Erie Canal was built, linking the Hudson River with Lake
4. How do the barriers posed by high mountains influence precipitation
patterns on the windward side as compared to the leeward side of a range?
The windward side of a mountain range experiences orographic precipitation and the
leeward side is in the rain shadow, so precipitation levels are much lower.
5. Why are watershed maps useful to environmental planners and other
local decision makers in delineating appropriate places for preserving
natural systems and eschewing economic development?
Watersheds are areas linked by a common drainage system. By delineating entire
watersheds for preservation, environmental planners ensure that none of the land or
waters within the watershed will be negatively impacted by development. This means
the entire system will be less likely to be polluted or face other impacts.
6. How are the landforms common to North America’s intermontane
physiographic province different from those that are visible in the Great
The intermontane region is characterized by low annual precipitation and landscapes
shaped by wind and water, such as steep canyons, valleys, mesas, and buttes. In
contrast, the Great Plains province is a region of broad plains and low hills covered
by a grassland ecosystem.
7. Specify four types of biomes that are found in North America based on
their general location on the continent and their interrelated patterns of
natural vegetation and climate.
The specific biomes of North America can be seen in Figure 2.17. Forest biomes
originally covered most of eastern North America to the edge of the Great Plains.
Forests also cover much of the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, and large
portions of northern Canada. Forest biomes are characterized by regular rainfall
averaging more than 30 inches a year.
Tundra is found only in the highest latitudes in North America. This biome is covered
with the type of vegetation that can tolerate an extremely short growing season,
little sunlight, and intense winter cold.
Grasslands cover the Great Plains. These ecosystems have large seasonal
temperature variation and irregular rainfall. Soils in the Great Plains are some of the
most productive in the world for agriculture, so very little of the original prairie
ecosystem is left.
Deserts and steppes are areas with extremely dry climates with annual rainfalls of
less than 10 inches. Any vegetation in these biomes must be able to survive with
very little water and tolerate occasional flash flooding.
The Mediterranean biome is one of the most unusual in North America, existing only
in western California and southern Oregon. A Mediterranean climate is characterized
by cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Chaparral vegetation in this zone
includes many shrubs and small trees that are adapted to regular fire.
The subtropical wetland biome also exists only in a tiny region in and around the
Everglades National Park in Florida.
8. What evidence seen in the physical environment of a particular area
indicate that it was shaped by continental glaciation in the past?
Many areas impacted by continental glaciation are characterized by thin, rocky soils,
exposed bedrock, and lakes scraped out by glaciers. Other areas show evidence of
glacial deposits in the form of parallel hills called drumlins or moraines.
9. What is the name of at least one major river system that flows into the
Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans?
Rivers that flow into the Arctic: Mackenzie
Rivers that flow into the Pacific: Sacramento, Fraser, Columbia
Rivers that flow into the Atlantic: Hudson, Delaware, Susquehanna, St. Lawrence,
Charles, Connecticut, Potomac
10. What are three examples of rivers or other topographic features that
have been used to delineate political boundaries in North America?
The Appalachian Mountains
The Bitteroot Mountains
The St. John and St. Croix Rivers
The Mississippi River