Encyclopedic Entry

The Strait of Messina, separating Sicily from the Italian mainland, is so narrow that the Italian government has considered building a bridge across it.

Photograph by Patrick McCarthy, MyShot

Taiwan Strait War?
China and Taiwan have not gone to war over the Taiwan Strait, but many political scientists fear they might. The Taiwan Strait separates mainland China from the island of Taiwan. Taiwan is an important trading partner of the United States and other western nations. Any conflict with China may threaten U.S. economic and political interests.

There have been three Taiwan Strait Crises. The last, in 1995-1996, involved the U.S. allowing the president of Taiwan to speak in the U.S. He expressed his hope for an independent Taiwan, angering Chinese officials.

A strait is a narrow body of water that connects two larger bodies of water.

It may be formed by a fracture in an isthmus, a narrow body of land that connects two bodies of water. Tectonic shifts can lead to straits like this. One strait that was formed by tectonic activity is the Strait of Gibraltar, the only link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Strait of Gibraltar is actually closing, as the African tectonic plate slides north. In a few thousand years, the Strait of Gibraltar will be the Isthmus of Gibraltar, and the Mediterranean will be a large, salty, inland sea.

If fractures in an isthmus are created by human activity, the straits are usually called canals. The Suez Canal was constructed in 1869 as a waterway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The Suez Canal allows transportation between Europe and Asia without having to go around the entire continent of Africa. It is an important economic strait.

A strait can also be formed by a body of water overflowing land that has subsided or has been eroded. The Bosporus, which links the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, was formed this way. Land at the southwestern edge of the Black Sea eroded and crumbled, creating a strait. Although scientists know that the Black Sea was once an enclosed lake, they do not know for sure whether the Black Sea flooded into the Aegean, or the Aegean flooded into the Black Sea. The Bosporus is an extremely important strait, separating the continents of Europe and Asia. Besides two entire continents, the Bosporus also separates a single country. It splits the European part of Turkey, called Thrace, and the Asian part, called Anatolia.

Strategic Straits

Historically, straits have had great strategic importance. Whoever controls a strait is likely to control the sea and shipping routes of the entire region.

The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf and a part of the Arabian Sea called the Gulf of Oman. Great quantities of petroleum from Middle Eastern states are shipped through the Strait of Hormuz.

The strait is jointly controlled by Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran. These countries, which all export oil, are rarely in dispute with each other. They all have military centers in the region. Countries that import oil from the region also patrol the Strait of Hormuz. Sometimes, these military patrols can lead to conflict. In 2008, the United States accused Iran of harassing U.S. warships with small speedboats. Iran denied the allegations. The two countries were close to conflict for months before the dispute was settled without violence.

Their narrow passages can make some straits difficult to navigate. The Strait of Magellan is a very thin waterway between the southern tip of South America and the group of islands known as Tierra del Fuego. The strait links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The stormy waters south of Tierra del Fuego (close to Antarctica) made the Strait of Magellan, to the north, more attractive to mariners. Although the landmasses protect the strait from harsh Antarctic weather, the Strait of Magellan is still difficult to navigate. It is narrow and the islands of Tierra del Fuego can lead to confusion in stormy weather. The temperatures can reach freezing. Strong wind and waves make visibility and steering complex.

Whaling ships of the 19th century, sailing from the East Coast of the United States to the whaling grounds of the South Pacific, would sometimes stay for weeks around the Strait of Magellan, waiting for calm, clear days for passage.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

Anatolia

Noun

part of the country of Turkey located in Asia.

canal

Noun

artificial waterway.

complex

Adjective

complicated.

conflict

Noun

a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

continent

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: continent

country

Noun

geographic territory with a distinct name, flag, population, boundaries, and government.

dispute

Noun

debate or argument.

economic

Adjective

having to do with money.

erode

Verb

to wear away.

export

Verb

to transport goods to another place for trade.

fracture

Verb

to break.

harsh

Adjective

extreme.

import

Verb

to bring in a good or service from another area for trade.

inland

Adjective

area not near the ocean.

island

Noun

body of land surrounded by water.

Encyclopedic Entry: island

isthmus

Noun

narrow strip of land connecting two larger land masses.

Encyclopedic Entry: isthmus

lake

Noun

body of water surrounded by land.

landmass

Noun

large area of land.

mariner

Noun

sailor.

Middle East

Noun

region of southwest Asia and northeast Africa.

military

Noun

armed forces.

navigate

Verb

to plan and direct the course of a journey.

oil

Noun

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

patrol

Verb

to survey and monitor an area by passing through it.

petroleum

Noun

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

region

Noun

any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

Encyclopedic Entry: region

sea

Noun

large part of the ocean enclosed or partly enclosed by land.

Encyclopedic Entry: sea

shipping route

Noun

path in a body of water used for trade.

steer

Verb

to guide or direct.

strait

Noun

narrow passage of water that connects two larger bodies of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: strait

strategic

Adjective

important part of a place or plan.

subside

Verb

to return to a lower level.

tectonic activity

Noun

movement of tectonic plates resulting in geologic activity such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

tectonic plate

Noun

large, moveable segment of the Earth's crust.

temperature

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

Encyclopedic Entry: temperature

Thrace

Noun

part of the country of Turkey located in Europe.

Tierra del Fuego

Noun

group of islands at the southern tip of South America.

transportation

Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

visibility

Noun

the ability to see or be seen with the unaided eye. Also called visual range.

waterway

Noun

body of water that serves as a route for transportation.

wave

Noun

moving swell on the surface of water.

weather

Noun

state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

Encyclopedic Entry: weather

whaling

Noun

industry of hunting whales.

wind

Noun

movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.

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.

Writers

Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Santani Teng
Erin Sprout
Hilary Costa
Hilary Hall
Jeff Hunt

Illustrators

Tim Gunther
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

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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