NORTH AMERICA : Special Article {Must Read}

NORTH AMERICA

NORTH AMERICA INCLUDES THE COUNTRIES of Canada, the United States,

and Mexico, as well as the world’s largest island, Greenland. During the

last Ice Age, a great sheet of ice flowed across the continent scouring the

landscape, deepening the depressions that now hold the Great Lakes,

and dumping fertile soil onto the central plains. The Rocky Mountains

form the backbone of the continent, running

from Alaska to New Mexico. In the east are

the Appalachian Mountains, flanked by coastal

lowlands to the east and south. In eastern

Canada lies the Canadian Shield, a huge basin

of ancient eroded rocks now covered with thin

soils. Deserts stretch from the southwestern

United States down into northern Mexico.

MOUNTAIN RANGES

The main mountain ranges of North

America, the snowcapped Rockies and

the forested Appalachians, vary greatly

in appearance (see above cross-section).

The difference can be explained by

their age. The Rockies, shown right, are

relatively young mountains that have not

yet been worn down. The Appalachians,

however, are among the world’s oldest

mountains and have been gradually

eroded by the scouring action of wind,

water, and the movement of glaciers.

THE GREAT PLAINS

Across the center of Canada and the US lie

the Great Plains, also called the prairies. This

huge area has hot summers and cold, snowy

winters. Trees are rare except along rivers and

lakeshores, but the region was once covered with

grasses grazed by millions of buffalo. Today, little

natural prairie survives, and in its place farmers

cultivate vast fields of corn and wheat.

THE GREAT LAKES

Estimated to contain one-fifth of

the world’s freshwater, the five

Great Lakes straddle the border

between Canada and the US.

Only Lake Michigan, shown left,

lies entirely within the US. The

lakes are linked by waterways

and drained by the St. Lawrence

River, which empties into the

Atlantic Ocean. The Niagara River,

which joins lakes Erie and Ontario,

passes over the famous Niagara Falls.

THE GRAND CANYON

The Grand Canyon was formed over millions

of years as the waters of the Colorado River

and its tributaries carved their way through

the solid rock. At some points the canyon is

1 mile (1.6 km) deep, and cuts through rocks

that are 2,000 million years old. Different

types of fossils found in the canyon walls

reveal the dates of its changing history.

Section across the US

San Francisco Rocky Mountains

Appalachian Mountains

THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER

The great Mississippi flows from

Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

At the turn of the last century,

the destruction of forest and the

plowing of prairies around the

river basin caused severe soil

erosion. Soil washed into the river,

raised the water level, and caused

floods. Replanting forests and building

dams has helped control the flow, but

exceptionally heavy rains still cause floods.

THE EVERGLADES

Florida’s Everglades are a protected wetland habitat,

home to many rare plants and animals. Originally covering

a much larger area, part of the Everglades has been

drained and used for the cultivation of sugarcane. The

northern part of the surviving wetland is now a sawgrass

prairie, covered by shallow water with islands of higher

land. In the south, freshwater mixes with water from the

sea, creating salt marshes fringed by mangrove swamps.

ONCE POPULATED BY TRIBES of native peoples

who lived off the land, the vast majority

of North America’s population now consists of

immigrants who arrived over the last 400 years.

Today, in terms of both population and economic

wealth, the continent is dominated by the US,

the richest country in the world. To the north,

Canada covers a vast area, but much of it is cold

and inhospitable, and so it has a much smaller

population. Both countries were once British

colonies and are still mostly English speaking.

In contrast, Mexico is Spanish speaking, reflecting

its past as a Spanish colony. Mexico is a relatively

poor country, despite its vast oil and gas reserves.

POPULATION DISTRIBUTION

In general, North America is one of the most sparsely populated

continents. Over two-thirds of the population lives in the US. Mexico

has the next largest population, followed by Canada. Historically, the

eastern US has been the most densely populated area, but in the past few

decades, many people have moved to the warmer southern and western

states. In Canada, people have also left the east coast for the Great Lakes

and cities such as Toronto, or for west coast cities such as Vancouver.

The population of Vancouver,

in western Canada, has grown

dramatically in recent years as

people have moved there from

Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.

The figures on

this chart show

the number of

people per

sq mile (sq km).

Largest country: Canada,

3,855,081 sq miles

(9,984,670 sq km)

PEOPLES OF NORTH AMERICA 

PEOPLE OF THE US

The US is often known as a

cultural “melting pot” because

of all the different peoples that

make up its population. The main

groups are whites (people of

European descent) Hispanics,

blacks, Asians, and native peoples.

A CONTINENT OF IMMIGRANTS

There have been many waves of immigrants to

North America, mostly from Europe, but from

South America and Asia, too. Not everyone chose

to go. Today’s black Americans are descended

from African slaves who were forced to the US

between 1619–1808 to work on plantations.

Slavery was not abolished in the US until 1865.

Today, African Americans are a vital part of

American culture, from politics to sports.

CANADIAN CULTURE

Canadians often display their

distinctive maple-leaf flag

outside their homes. They

are very proud of their

country with its wide open

spaces, lakes, mountains,

and extensive national and

provincial parks. But there

is always the issue of US

entertainment and culture

flooding across the border

and dominating the

Canadian identity. To

encourage Canada’s own

cultural development, the

government gives grants

to the arts, and the

broadcasting, publishing,

and film industries. This Canadian “patriotic workshop” is painted in the colors of the country’s flag. 

GOOD NEIGHBORS

There has not been a war between the countries of

North America for nearly 150 years. Recently, Canada,

the US, and Mexico agreed to abolish trade barriers and

open their markets to each other’s exports. The full

effects of this agreement are yet to be discovered, but

Mexican workers like these farmers have already lost out,

as cheaper US food and goods

have flooded into Mexico. By

contrast, cheaper food

can benefit the poor.

EUROPEAN SETTLERS

Europeans have been

settling in the US and

Canada since the 16th

century, but in the 19th

century, immigrants began

to flood in. They were

often driven from Europe

by economic hardship,

political unrest, and

religious persecution. North

America was seen as a land

of opportunity, where there

was plenty of cheap land

and people were promised

freedom. The first

immigrants settled on the

east coast, but began to

move northeast in the 1800s

as industry began to grow.

NATIVE PEOPLES

Native Americans are the descendants of people who probably

migrated from Asia via a land bridge across the Bering Strait

about 20,000 years ago. Today, native peoples form only a small

proportion of the population of the US and Canada. In the US,

many Native Americans were moved onto special reservations in

the 19th century as settlers took

over their lands. In Mexico,

native peoples, like these Maya,

form about 30 percent of the

population and are spread

throughout the country.

In the US, local matters,

such as police, hospital,

and highway services, are

taken care of by individual

states. Matters that affect

all the states, such as

foreign policy, defense,

and issuing currency,

are dealt with centrally.

FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS

All three countries in North America have federal systems of government. This means that each country is divided into a number of states or provinces. These make their own local laws and also have representatives in the national government. Tension sometimes develops between the interests of the individual states or provinces and the interests of the country as a whole. In Canada, for example, a strong independence movement has grown up in the French-speaking province of Québec.

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