Encyclopedic Entry

North America benefits greatly from its fertile soils, plentiful freshwater, oil and mineral deposits, and forests.

Map by the National Geographic Society

Largest Urban Area
Mexico City, Mexico (18,204,965 people)

Highest Elevation
Denali, Alaska, United States (6,194 meters/20,322 feet)

Largest Watershed
Mississippi River (3,202,185 square kilometers/1,236,371 square miles)

Population Density
21 people per square kilometer

Amount of Renewable Electricity Produced
15% (top producer of renewable energy: Costa Rica, 93%)

North America, the third-largest continent, extends from the tiny Aleutian Islands in the northwest to the Isthmus of Panama in the south.

North Americas physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

North America benefits greatly from its fertile soils, plentiful freshwater, oil and mineral deposits, and forests. With a strong domestic and export economy focused on this abundant array of natural resources, North America has become one of the most developed regions in the world.

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 Americas variety of agricultural industries, which are often divided by climate zone: tropical zone, subtropical zone, cool temperate zone, and dry zone.

In the tropical zones of North America, farmers 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.

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, Californias 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.

Agriculture in North Americas tropical and subtropical zones is threatened by monoculture. Monoculture is the practice of growing one crop in an area over a long period of time. Monoculture is a risky way of farming for two reasons. First, the soil may lose its nutrients. The nitrogen and phosphates in the soil do not have time to accumulate if the field is not allowed to be fallow, or rest. Planting other, less-intensive crops can also help the soil recover its natural nutrients. The second reason monoculture puts crops at risk is the possibility of disease. A disease affecting a single species of plant could devastate an entire crop, and the community's livelihood. Planting a variety of crops minimizes the risk of disease.

Farmers and agribusinesses combat the threats of monoculture with the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers replenish nutrients such as phosphates and nitrates to the soil. Pesticides target diseases brought by pests of a single plant. However, extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides can have a harmful impact on the environment. Runoff from agricultural fields can pollute rivers, lakes, and the ocean.

The continents cool temperate zones are ideal for hardy fruits, such as apples and peaches. 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 continents 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 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 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.

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 continents largest paper mills are found in these temperate rain forests. In addition to paper, paper mills produce cardboard and fiberboard.

Overharvesting of timber is a concern throughout North America. The reduction of forested land reduces biodiversity and threatens the longevity of the timber industry. The logging industry and local governments must work together to develop sustainable plans to harvest timber.

The Mexican government, for example, created the ProArbol (pro-tree) campaign with the objectives of conserving and restoring forests. The campaign pledges to plant more than 250 million trees in urban and rural Mexico. ProArbol also works to ensure that Mexican forests positively influence biodiversity and human health.

Mining

Extractive activities, such as mining and drilling, dominate the North American economy. Mining provides billions of dollars and millions of jobs throughout the continent. 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.

Extractive activities have been a major part of the economies of North America for hundreds of years. For example, gold mining helped spur development in the U.S. states of California and Alaska in the 19th century.

Coal remains a primary industry for the U.S., and is often linked with states near the Appalachians. Coal is a type of sedimentary rock found deep underground, formed from the remains of ancient plants. When burned, coal is an excellent source of energy and is mostly used as fuel for electricity-generating power plants. Coal can be mined underground or in large, open pits.

Mining is a dangerous industry. Coal is combustible, meaning it catches fire and explodes easily. Coal dust is toxic when breathed for long periods of time. Mines are vulnerable to collapse. Mining accidents have led companies and governments to pursue regulations that ensure greater safety for miners. In 2006, for instance, a coal mine in Sago, West Virginia, exploded. Thirteen miners were trapped hundreds of meters below ground. Only one miner survived. The so-called Sago mine disaster prompted calls for greater communication and safety technology to be employed at mining sites throughout North America.

Coal mining can also have a negative impact on the environment. Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) has eliminated entire mountain ecosystems in the Appalachians. This type of mining also results in coal waste products being stored near public land. Improper storage of these waste products has damaged ecosystems and threatened human health. In 2008, a massive spill resulted in 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry being released near Kingston, Tennessee. The spill damaged homes and entered into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, killing large fish populations and threatening water supplies.

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 Americas economy. The United States, Canada, and Mexico are among the worlds top oil producers.

The Athabasca tar sands, in the Canadian province of Alberta, are the worlds largest reservoir of heavy crude oil. More than 20 national and international extraction projects are established in the Athabasca tar sands. The extraction and processing of crude oil, however, destroys the areas boreal forests and diverts an incredible volume of water from local rivers. The heavy crude oil from tar sands also emits 20 percent more carbon dioxide than emissions from light crude oil.

Oil and gas extraction is the dominant industry around the Gulf and Arctic regions of North America. 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.)

Oil and natural gas, like coal, are nonrenewable resources. Global demand for fossil fuels has caused multinational corporations to drill in remote and dangerous regions. Scientists and engineers have developed more complex technology to search for deposits. Oil companies are forced to drill deeper and in more remote areas to extract these resources. The impact of these extractive activities is unknown.

However, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 has put into question the safety and sustainability of high-tech extractive industries. Deepwater Horizon was an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, capable of drilling to depths of 9,100 meters (30,000 feet). The rig exploded, killing 11 workers and causing a massive oil spill that took months to control. The impact on the environment was felt in the U.S. from Texas to Florida.

The Built Environment

North Americas high level of economic development has promoted the construction of megacities, engineering marvels, and advanced infrastructure.

A megacity is usually defined as an urban area with at least 10 million people. Mexico City, Mexico; New York, New York; and Los Angeles, California, are North Americas megacities.

With 21.2 million people, Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the Americas. Industrial growth caused a demographic boom during the last half-century, increasing the areas population from 3 million people in 1950 to its present numbers. As with many megacities, Mexico City is currently experiencing slower growth than in the past. The economy has shifted from manufacturing to the service industry, which includes tourism, education, banking, and sales. More people are moving out of the city itself and into the suburbs.

Mexico City is built on a swampy series of islands in a valley surrounded by volcanoes. As the population boomed, the areas delicate geology led to problems with flooding, runoff, wastewater management, pollution, and earthquakes.

Los Angeles, California, is one of the fastest-growing cities on the continent. L.A. is the second largest city in the United States, with 3.83 million people in 2008; the entire metropolitan area has more than 15 million people. The city is known as the Entertainment Capital of the World, with many motion picture, television, and music production studios established there. Los Angeles is also considered a majority-minority city, as its racial composition is less than 50 percent white. According to U.S. Census figures, Angelenos of Latino origin account for 48.4 percent of the population.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, is also considered one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. More than 50 percent of its population was born outside of Canada. The citys diverse community, low crime rates, clean environment, and high standard of living make it one of the worlds most livable cities.

Engineering marvels have defined North America over the last century. The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, is one of the most important waterways in the world. Its 80-kilometer (50 mile) length connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Isthmus of Panama, making ship voyages dramatically shorter. Ships travelling from the west coast to the east coast of the United States, for example, cut their voyage by 8,000 nautical miles because they are not required to round Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.

The Hoover Dam, completed in 1936, is another of North Americas engineering milestones. Located on the Colorado River on the border between the U.S. states of Arizona and Nevada, the Hoover Dam creates Lake Mead, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. The dam is used for flood control, electric power, irrigation, and water supplies.

While it has contributed greatly to the development of the southwestern U.S., the Hoover Dam has also negatively impacted the Colorado River, its tributaries, and surrounding ecosystems. Construction of the dam basically eliminated the Colorado Delta ecosystem, as almost no water reaches the rivers mouth. Communities in the Mexican state of Baja California are also prevented from using the rivers water supplies.

Cities and economic development have spurred North American engineers and architects to construct some of the worlds most striking buildings. Completed in 1976, Torontos CN Tower is the tallest freestanding structure in the Western Hemisphere, standing at 553 meters (1,815 feet). All major Canadian radio stations, as well as wireless service providers, use the CN Tower for transmission.

North Americas advanced infrastructure has allowed populations, services, and industries to prosper across the continent. With the first underground line opened in 1904, the New York City subway system is one of the oldest and most extensive public transportation systems in the world. It now has more than 450 stations, more than 354 kilometers (220 miles) of track, and delivered more than 1.575 billion rides in 2009.

Other infrastructure systems transport goods. Mexicos state-owned petroleum company, Pemex, transports crude oil and natural gas through more than 453 pipelines spanning 4,667 kilometers (2,900 miles). Pemex is one of the largest companies in the world.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

accumulate

Verb

to gather or collect.

agriculture

Noun

the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture

air current

Noun

flowing movement of air within a larger body of air.

Arctic

Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic

biodiversity

Noun

all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity

boreal forest

Noun

land covered by evergreen trees in cool, northern latitudes. Also called taiga.

carbon dioxide

Noun

greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

cattle

Noun

cows and oxen.

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

coal

Noun

dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

combustible

Adjective

able to burn.

continent

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: continent

coral reef

Noun

rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.

cultivate

Verb

to prepare and nurture the land for crops.

dairy

Adjective

having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.

delta

Noun

the flat, low-lying plain that sometimes forms at the mouth of a river from deposits of sediments.

Encyclopedic Entry: delta

demographic

Adjective

having to do with the social characteristics and statistics of a population.

domestic

Adjective

having to do with policies or issues within a nation.

dominate

Verb

to overpower or control.

earthquake

Noun

the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

economy

Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

ecosystem

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem

electricity

Noun

set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

engineering

Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

fertile

Adjective

able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

fodder

Noun

food for livestock consisting of whole plants.

forestry

Noun

management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.

fossil fuel

Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

freshwater

Noun

water that is not salty.

frost

Noun

thin coat of ice covering objects when the dew point is below freezing.

Encyclopedic Entry: frost

geology

Noun

study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

government

Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

Great Plains

Noun

grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

heavy crude

Noun

liquid petroleum product.

human geography

Noun

the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.

humid

Adjective

containing a large amount of water vapor.

ice sheet

Noun

thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.

Encyclopedic Entry: ice sheet

industry

Noun

activity that produces goods and services.

infrastructure

Noun

structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

irrigation

Noun

watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.

Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation

isthmus

Noun

narrow strip of land connecting two larger land masses.

Encyclopedic Entry: isthmus

jungle

Noun

tropical ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

livelihood

Noun

ability to economically support oneself.

majority-minority

Noun

having to do with a region whose residents are mostly non-white.

mineral

Noun

inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

mining

Noun

process of extracting ore from the Earth.

monoculture

Noun

the system of growing one type of crop.

mountaintop removal mining (MTR)

Noun

method of coal mining where the peak of a mountain is removed to get at the coal beneath.

mouth

Noun

place where a river empties its water. Usually rivers enter another body of water at their mouths.

Encyclopedic Entry: mouth

multinational corporation

Noun

business that manages the production of goods or delivers services in several countries.

natural resource

Noun

a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

nonrenewable resource

Noun

natural resource that exists in a limited supply.

nutrient

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient

oil

Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

overharvest

Verb

to use more of a resource than can be replaced naturally.

pesticide

Noun

natural or manufactured substance used to kill organisms that threaten agriculture or are undesirable. Pesticides can be fungicides (which kill harmful fungi), insecticides (which kill harmful insects), herbicides (which kill harmful plants), or rodenticides (which kill harmful rodents.)

petroleum

Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of ancient organisms. Also called crude oil.

physical geography

Noun

study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

pollution

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

Encyclopedic Entry: pollution

prairie

Noun

large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

Encyclopedic Entry: prairie

public transportation

Noun

methods of movement that are available to all community members for a fee, and which follow a fixed route and schedule: buses, subways, trains and ferries.

ranching

Noun

practice of raising livestock for human use, such as food or clothing.

Encyclopedic Entry: ranching

regulation

Noun

rule or law.

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

runoff

Noun

overflow of fluid from a farm or industrial factory.

Encyclopedic Entry: runoff

rural

Adjective

having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

sedimentary rock

Noun

rock formed from fragments of other rocks or the remains of plants or animals.

service industry

Noun

business that provides assistance to a customer. Also called tertiary economic activity.

slurry

Noun

liquid waste, such as that from the coal mining and cleaning process, also called sludge.

soil

Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

steel

Noun

metal made of the elements iron and carbon.

suburb

Noun

geographic area, mostly residential, just outside the borders of an urban area.

subway

Noun

underground railway; a popular form of public transportation in large urban areas.

sustainable

Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

swamp

Noun

land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.

Encyclopedic Entry: swamp

tar sands

Noun

geologic area that contains sand, clay, and a form of petroleum called bitumen. Also called oil sands.

technology

Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

tourism

Noun

the industry (including food, hotels, and entertainment) of traveling for pleasure.

toxic

Adjective

poisonous.

transmission

Noun

broadcasting of electromagnetic signals, such as radio waves, from a transmitter to a receiver.

tropical

Adjective

existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.

urban

Adjective

having to do with city life.

volcano

Noun

an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

vulnerable

Adjective

capable of being hurt.

wastewater

Noun

water that has been used for washing, flushing, or industry.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Diane Boudreau
Andrew Turgeon

Illustrator

Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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