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5.1: The Geographic Features of Middle and South America

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    Learning Objectives

    • Identify the key geographic features of Middle and South America
    • Describe the primary patterns of colonial development found in Middle America
    • Analyze the patterns of urban development in South America
    • Explain how globalization has shaped current issues of inequality across Middle and South America

    Middle and South America (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) cover an area of the world that is fragmented both in terms of its physical connectivity and its history. Generally, the continents of North American and South America are divided at the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land that connects the two large landmasses. Culturally, though, Middle America, including the Caribbean, is quite similar to South America and this region shares a distinct pattern of colonial development.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Middle and South America (CIA World Factbook, Public Domain)

    “Middle America” is typically defined as the area between North and South America, with Mexico sometimes categorized as North America and sometimes as Middle or Central America. Since Mexico shares strong cultural and historical similarities with the countries of Central America, they are grouped together in this text. This region also includes the islands of the Caribbean. South of Middle America is the continent of South America, extending from the tropical sand beaches of Colombia to the frigid islands of southern Chile and Argentina.

    The region lies at the intersection of a number of tectonic plates making the region vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanoes (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Haiti, for example, located on the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, is situated on the edge of the Caribbean plate along a transform plate boundary. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck here in 2010 killing over 100,000 people.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Tectonic Plate Boundaries in Middle and South America (CIA World Factbook, Public Domain)

    These tectonic collisions have created a landscape of relatively high relief, particularly in Middle America and western South America. Mexico is home to a number of impressive mountain ranges, including the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west, Sierra Madre Oriental in the east, and Sierra Madre del Sur in the south (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Sierra Madre Ranges in Mexico (Satellite image by NASA, Derivative by Ricraider, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Further east, the tectonic collision of the Caribbean plate and the North American plate formed the Caribbean archipelago, or island chain. Many of these islands are the tops of underwater mountains. The islands of the Caribbean are divided into the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). The Greater Antilles include the larger islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and the Cayman Islands. The Lesser Antilles are much smaller and include the Leeward and Windward Islands, the Leeward Antilles, and the Bahamas.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Map of the Greater and Lesser Antilles (© Kmusser, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    In addition to earthquakes and volcanoes, the region is prone to tropical cyclones, also known as hurricanes. The areas along the Gulf of Mexico, in particular, lie in the path of frequent hurricanes. El Niño, the warming phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, also contributes to severe weather in the region. In North America, El Niño results in warmer than average temperatures, but it can also increase the number of tropical cyclones in the Americas and excessive rain across South America.

    The high relief of Central America has created distinct agricultural and livestock zones, known as altitudinal zonation. As altitude increases, temperature decreases, and thus each altitudinal zone can support different crops and animals (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)). The hot, coastal area known as the tierra caliente, for example, can support tropical crops like bananas and rice. Past the tree line in the higher elevation of the tierra helada, animals like llamas can graze on cool grasses. In this way, even countries with a relatively small land area can support a wide variety of agricultural activities.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Altitudinal zones in Central and South America (© Chris.urs-o, Maksim, and Anita Graser; Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    South America’s Andes Mountains, which stretch from Venezuela down to Chile and Argentina, were formed from the subduction of the Nazca and Antarctic plates below the South American plate. They are the highest mountains outside of Asia. Situated in the Andes is the Altiplano, a series of high elevation plains. These wide basins were central to early human settlement of the continent.

    The rest of South America is relatively flat. The Amazon basin is the other key geographic feature of the continent (Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)). The Amazon River is South America’s longest river and is the largest river in the world in terms of discharge. The river discharges 209,000 cubic meters (7.4 million cubic feet) every second – more than the discharge of the next seven largest rivers combined! Its drainage basin covers an area of over 7 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Amazon River and Drainage Basin (©Kmusser, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Numerous rivers snake across Central America, but the most prominent water feature is Lake Nicaragua. This large, freshwater lake is home to numerous species of fish and provides both economic and recreational benefits to the people of Nicaragua. Plans were approved to build a canal through Nicaragua to connect the Caribbean Sea to Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean though many worry about the ecological impacts of such a large-scale project.

    Currently, the only connection between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean is through the Panama Canal. The canal was started in 1881 by the French, in what was then territory owned by Colombia, but the project was a failure. French construction workers were unprepared for the torrential Central American rainy season, dense jungle, and difficult geology. 22,000 workers were killed due to disease and accidents.

    The United States helped Panama achieve independence from Colombia and in exchange, Panama granted the US rights to build and control the canal. In 1904, the US continued where the French had left off and in just ten years, the project was completed. Over 5,600 workers died during the US construction project. Panama regained control of the canal in 1999.

    When the canal was completed, it accommodated around 1,000 ships per year. Today, around 15,000 ships pass through the canal each year. One key issue is that the Panama Canal’s waterways are almost entirely man-made and pass through areas of changing elevation. A series of locks take ships from lower-elevation waterways and raise or lower them depending on the direction the ships are headed. It takes around 8 to 10 hours for a ship to pass through. These locks were not built with modern ships in mind, however, and construction was undertaken to widen the locks to accommodate today’s massive container ships. The expansion project was completed in 2016.


    a narrow strip of land that connects the two large landmasses


    a chain of islands

    El Niño:

    the warming phase of a climate pattern found across the tropical Pacific Ocean region

    Altitudinal zonation:

    distinct agricultural and livestock zones resulting from changes in elevation


    a series of high elevation plains found in western South America

    This page titled 5.1: The Geographic Features of Middle and South America is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Caitlin Finlayson.

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