• South America: Physical Geography

    South America is a continent of extremes. It is home to the world's largest river (the Amazon) as well as the world's driest place (the Atacama Desert).

    Largest Urban Area
    Sao Paulo, Brazil (11,016,703 people)

    Highest Elevation
    Aconcagua, Argentina (6,962 meters/22,841 feet)

    Largest Watershed
    Amazon River (6,145,186 square kilometers/2,372,670 square miles)

    Population Density
    22 people per square kilometer

    Amount of Renewable Electricity Produced
    52% (top producer of renewable energy: Paraguay, 100%)

    South America, the fourth-largest continent, extends from the Gulf of Darién in the northwest to the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego in the south.

    South America’s physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

    South America can be divided into three physical regions: mountains and highlands, river basins, and coastal plains. Mountains and coastal plains generally run in a north-south direction, while highlands and river basins generally run in an east-west direction.

    South America’s extreme geographic variation contributes to the continent’s large number of biomes. A biome is a community of animals and plants that spreads over an area with a relatively uniform climate.

    Within a few hundred kilometers, South America’s coastal plains’ dry desert biome rises to the rugged alpine biome of the Andes mountains. One of the continent’s river basins (the Amazon) is defined by dense, tropical rain forest, while the other (Paraná) is made up of vast grasslands.

    With an unparalleled number of plant and animal species, South America’s rich biodiversity is unique among the world’s continents.

    Mountains & Highlands

    South America’s primary mountain system, the Andes, is also the world’s longest. The range covers about 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles). Situated on the far western edge of the continent, the Andes stretch from the southern tip to the northernmost coast of South America. There are hundreds of peaks more than 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) tall, many of which are volcanic.

    The highest peak in the Andes, Aconcagua, stands at 6,962 meters (22,841 feet) and straddles the Argentina-Chile border. Aconcagua is the tallest mountain outside Asia.

    High plateaus are also a feature of the Andes. The altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, for example, has an elevation of about 3,700 meters (12,300 feet). The Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile consists of lower-elevation plateaus and rugged glaciers.

    Most plants in the alpine biome are small, and their leaves are stiff and strong to protect them from frost and drought. The largest herb in the world, Puya raimondii, is known as the Queen of the Andes. A Puya raimondii can live for 100 years and can grow to more than 9 meters (30 feet) tall. The leaves of this endangered species all grow from one woody stem, allowing moisture to run down the leaves to the base of the plant.

    Outside the Andes, South America has two principal highland areas: the Brazilian Highlands and the Guiana Highlands. Located south of the Amazon River in Brazil, the Brazilian Highlands are made up of low mountains and plateaus that rise to an average elevation of 1,006 meters (3,300 feet). The Guiana Highlands are located between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. The heavily forested plateau of the Guiana Highlands covers southern Venezuela, French Guiana, Guyana, northern Brazil, and a portion of southeastern Colombia.

    River Basins

    South America has three important river basins: the Amazon, Orinoco, and Paraguay/Paraná.

    The Amazon River basin has an area of almost 7 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles), making it the largest watershed in the world. The basin, which covers most of northern South America, is fed by tributaries from the glaciers of the Andes. Every second, the Amazon River empties 209,000 cubic meters (7,381,000 cubic feet) of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean.

    The Amazon River is the life force of the equally vast Amazon rain forest, which makes up about half of the rain forest of the entire planet. This tropical biome has as many as 100 different tree species on a single acre, including the rubber tree, silk cotton tree, and Brazil nut tree. Other important plant species include palms, ferns, and ropelike vines known as lianas that network throughout the rain forest’s dense canopy.

    The diversity of animal life in the Amazon rain forest is unsurpassed in the rest of the world. The rain forest is perfectly suited for arboreal, or tree-living, animals. More than 2 million species of insects are native to the region, including hundreds of spiders and butterflies. Primates are abundant—howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and capuchin monkeys—along with sloths, snakes, and iguanas. Thousands of native birds include brightly colored macaws, parrots, toucans, and parakeets.

    The Orinoco River flows north of the Amazon. The Orinoco flows in a giant arc for more than 2,736 kilometers (1,700 miles), originating in the Guiana Highlands of northern Brazil and discharging in the Atlantic Ocean in Venezuela. The Orinoco River basin covers an area of about 948,000 square kilometers (366,000 square miles) and encompasses approximately 80 percent of Venezuela and 25 percent of Colombia.

    A vast savanna or grassland region, known as the Llanos, is the primary biome of the Orinoco River basin. The Llanos is primarily made up of grasses. Swamp grasses, sedges, and bunchgrass are found in wet, low-lying areas. Carpet grass is found in the higher and drier elevations.

    Like most grassland biomes, the Llanos is the perfect habitat for many bird species, including the scarlet ibis, bellbird, and umbrellabird. Important river species include the piranha, electric eel, and the Orinoco crocodile, which can reach a length of more than 6 meters (20 feet).

    The Paraguay/Paraná River basin covers almost 2.8 million square kilometers (1,081,000 square miles), which is much of southeastern Brazil and Bolivia, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. The Paraná River includes Iguazu Falls, a massive series of waterfalls that extend for 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles).

    Along with the Uruguay River, the Paraná River empties into the Rio de la Plata estuary between Argentina and Uruguay. The Rio de la Plata is the most populated region of both countries. The capital cities of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, practically face each other across the estuary.

    The Paraguay/Paraná River basin supplies water to the plains biome, or Pampas, of South America. The Pampas have rich, fertile soil and predictable rainfall patterns. They are the most important grazing and cropland areas on the continent.

    Coastal Plains

    A coastal plain is an area of low, flat land next to a seacoast. South American coastal plains are found on the northeastern coast of Brazil, on the Atlantic Ocean, and the western, Pacific coast of Peru and Chile. The coastal plains of northeastern Brazil are extremely dry. The Brazilian Highlands act as a wedge that pushes moist sea winds away from the coastal plains.

    The western coastal plains are also extremely dry. They are trapped between the cold Peru Current to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east. The Peru Current brings cold water to the Pacific coast of Peru and Chile. This cold surface water results in thermal inversion: cold air at sea level and stable, warmer air higher up. Thermal inversion produces a thick layer of clouds at low altitudes. These low-lying clouds blanket much of the Pacific coast of South America. They do not allow precipitation to form.

    The Atacama Desert is part of the western coastal plain. The Atacama is considered the driest region in the world. The average rainfall is about 1 millimeter (0.04 inches) a year, and some parts of the Atacama have never had rain in recorded history.

    Very few plants grow in this desert. Even bacteria, insects, and fungi are scarce. Larger animal species are also rare, and include the grey fox, a type of deer called the huemul, and the viscacha—the largest member of the chinchilla family. Ocean birds, such as penguins, cormorants, and pelicans, are found on the desert coast. While Atacama lacks flora and fauna, it is a rich source of copper and a chief source of revenue for the Chilean economy.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    alpine Adjective

    having to do with mountains.

    Altiplano Noun

    high plateau in the Andes Mountains of South America.

    arboreal Adjective

    having to do with trees.

    arc Noun

    part of the outline of a circle.

    archipelago Noun

    a group of closely scattered islands in a large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archipelago
    bacteria Plural Noun

    (singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.

    basin Noun

    a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

    Encyclopedic Entry: basin
    biodiversity Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    biome Noun

    area of the planet which can be classified according to the plant and animal life in it.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biome
    border Noun

    natural or artificial line separating two pieces of land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: border
    canopy Noun

    one of the top layers of a forest, formed by the thick leaves of very tall trees.

    capital Noun

    city where a region's government is located.

    Encyclopedic Entry: capital
    chinchilla Noun

    rodent native to South America.

    climate Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    cloud Noun

    visible mass of tiny water droplets or ice crystals in Earth's atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: cloud
    coastal plain Noun

    low, flat land lying next to the ocean.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coastal plain
    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    copper Noun

    chemical element with the symbol Cu.

    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    current Noun

    steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

    Encyclopedic Entry: current
    dense Adjective

    having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.

    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    economy Noun

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

    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    estuary Noun

    mouth of a river where the river's current meets the sea's tide.

    Encyclopedic Entry: estuary
    fauna Noun

    animals associated with an area or time period.

    fertile Adjective

    able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

    flora Noun

    plants associated with an area or time period.

    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
    fungi Plural Noun

    (singular: fungus) organisms that survive by decomposing and absorbing nutrients in organic material such as soil or dead organisms.

    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    gulf Noun

    portion of an ocean or sea that penetrates land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: gulf
    herb Noun

    type of seasonal plant often used as a medicine or seasoning.

    huemul Noun

    deer native to South America. Also called the South Andean deer.

    human geography Noun

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

    mountain Noun

    landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

    Pampas Noun

    flat grasslands of South America.

    Patagonia Noun

    large plateau in southern South America, stretching from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

    physical geography Noun

    study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

    plain Noun

    flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plain
    plateau Noun

    large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plateau
    precipitation Noun

    all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation
    primate Noun

    type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.

    rain forest Noun

    area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rain forest
    region Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    resource Noun

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

    revenue Noun

    income, or money earned before production costs are subtracted.

    rugged Adjective

    having an irregular or jagged surface.

    savanna Noun

    type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.

    sedge Noun

    grass-like plant native to wetlands.

    soil Noun

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

    stem Noun

    main stalk of a plant.

    surpass Verb

    to go beyond a set limit.

    swamp Noun

    land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.

    Encyclopedic Entry: swamp
    thermal inversion Noun

    climate pattern where the air is warmer at higher elevations.

    tributary Noun

    stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.

    Encyclopedic Entry: tributary
    tropical Adjective

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

    unique Adjective

    one of a kind.

    waterfall Noun

    flow of water descending steeply over a cliff. Also called a cascade.

    Encyclopedic Entry: waterfall
    watershed Noun

    entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

    Encyclopedic Entry: watershed
    wedge Noun

    triangle shape.