G&ES 201: Geography of Latin America

Some Important Physical Features in South America

Some prominent physical features that are found in South America are shown on the accompanying sketch. It may be useful to both point out what these features are and to compare them with corresponding features that are found in North America.

The most prominent physical feature in South America is probably the Andes Mountains. The Andes occupy the western part of the South American continent and run generally from north to south. Frequent tectonic activity, especially earthquakes, reminds one that the mountains are geologically active. In North America there are also prominent mountains--the Rockies--in the western portion of the continent. When compared with the Rockies, though, the Andes for the most part are significantly higher in elevation. The Andes also tend to be narrower from west to east than the Rockies in North America.

In the eastern part of South America there are some highlands that are older in geologic terms. In some ways they correspond with the Appalachians in the eastern part of the North American continent. In South America the eastern highlands are divided into two main pieces. To the north are the Guiana Highlands, and to the south are the Brazilian Highlands.

Continuing the parallels between North America and South America, both continents have large lowlands in their center that are drained by major river systems. The largest of these river systems in South America is the Amazon (Rio Amazonas). Its parallel in North America would be the Mississippi-Ohio river system. A key difference between the continents, though, is the fact that the Amazon system drains a sparcely populated tropical area, while the Midwest is a well populated middle-latitude heartland of the United States.

Latitudes are also different. Most of South America lies in the tropics, whereas much of North America is middle-latitude in location.

The South American continent is relatively narrow at higher latitudes. At 50 degrees south, for example, the continent is only about 500 kilometers (300 miles) across. In contrast, North America at 50 degrees north is 4,130 kilometers (2,565 miles) across. Thus higher-latitude locations in South America tend to be closer to an ocean than comparable locations in North America. Since water heats and cools relatively slowly this proximity to water lessens the temperature extremes that one finds in southern South America.


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Last Revised: January 24, 1997