Denali Mt McKinley
Denali mountain in Alaska (USA)
Satellitenaufnahme der Alpen
A satellite view of the Alps, a mountain range in Europe
Westpeak
The Olympic Mountains, Washington state, USA

A mountain is a natural rise of the Earth's surface that usually has a "summit" (or "top"). It is usually steeper and taller than a hill. Mountains are often thought of as being a hill of over 600 metres (about 2,000 feet).

Definition of a mountain

  • The highest point of a mountain is called the peak. A mountain's summit is the highest area an individual can reach. A mountain climber will not reach the peak of the mountain but can reach the summit.
  • Britannica Student Encyclopedia says that the term "mountain' usually means a rise of over 2,000 feet (610 m)".
  • Polytechnic Student Encyclopedia says that the term "mountain' usually means a rise of over 1,000 feet (610 m)".
  • The standard height for a mountain in England is 600 metres. In England, it is important to have a legal height because people have the "Right to Roam" in mountains, but they do not have the same right to walk on someone-else's land.

Geology

There are three main types of mountains: volcanic, fold, and block. All three types are formed from plate tectonics: when portions of the Earth's crust move, crumple, and dive. Compressional forces, isostatic uplift and intrusion of igneous matter forces surface rock upward, creating a landform higher than the surrounding features. The height of the feature makes it either a hill or, if higher and steeper, a mountain. Major mountains tend to occur in long linear arcs, indicating tectonic plate boundaries and activity.

Volcanoes

Geologycal cross-section of Fuji
Geological cross-section of Fuji volcano

Volcanoes are formed when a plate is pushed below another plate, or at a mid-ocean ridge or hotspot. At a depth of around 100 km, melting occurs in rock above the slab (due to the addition of water), and forms magma that reaches the surface. When the magma reaches the surface, it often builds a volcanic mountain, such as a shield volcano or a stratovolcano. Examples of volcanoes include Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The magma does not have to reach the surface in order to create a mountain: magma that solidifies below ground can still form dome mountains, such as Navajo Mountain in the US.

Fold mountains

Lewis overthrust fault nh10f
Illustration of mountains that developed on a fold that thrusted.

Fold mountains occur when two plates collide: shortening occurs along thrust faults and the crust is overthickened. Since the less dense continental crust "floats" on the denser mantle rocks beneath, the weight of any crustal material forced upward to form hills, plateaus or mountains must be balanced by the buoyancy force of a much greater volume forced downward into the mantle. Thus the continental crust is normally much thicker under mountains, compared to lower lying areas. Rock can fold either symmetrically or asymmetrically. The upfolds are anticlines and the downfolds are synclines: in asymmetric folding there may also be recumbent and overturned folds. The Jura Mountains are an example of fold mountains.

Block mountains

Slide Mountain Catskills
The Catskills in Upstate New York represent an eroded plateau.

Block mountains are caused by faults in the crust: a plane where rocks have moved past each other. When rocks on one side of a fault rise relative to the other, it can form a mountain. The uplifted blocks are block mountains or horsts. The intervening dropped blocks are termed graben: these can be small or form extensive rift valley systems. This form of landscape can be seen in East Africa, the Vosges, the Basin and Range Province of Western North America and the Rhine valley. These areas often occur when the regional stress is extensional and the crust is thinned.

Erosion

Kitty Ann Mountain
Kitty Ann Mountain is an eroded mountain in the Ramapo mountain range in New Jersey and New York

During and following uplift, mountains are subjected to the agents of erosion (water, wind, ice, and gravity) which gradually wear the uplifted area down. Erosion causes the surface of mountains to be younger than the rocks that form the mountains themselves. Glacial processes produce characteristic landforms, such as pyramidal peaks, knife-edge arêtes, and bowl-shaped cirques that can contain lakes. Plateau mountains, such as the Catskills, are formed from the erosion of an uplifted plateau.

In earth science, erosion is the action of surface processes (such as water flow or wind) that removes soil, rock, or dissolved material from one location on the Earth's crust, and then transport it away to another location (not to be confused with weathering which involves no movement). The particulate breakdown of rock or soil into clastic sediment is referred to as physical or mechanical erosion; this contrasts with chemical erosion, where soil or rock material is removed from an area by its dissolving into a solvent (typically water), followed by the flow away of that solution. Eroded sediment or solutes may be transported just a few millimeters, or for thousands of kilometers.

Climate

Ural mountains 3 448122223 93fa978a6d b
A combination of high latitude and high altitude makes the northern Urals in picture to have climatic conditions that make the ground barren.

Climate in the mountains becomes colder at high elevations, due to an interaction between radiation and convection. Sunlight in the visible spectrum hits the ground and heats it. The ground then heats the air at the surface. If radiation were the only way to transfer heat from the ground to space, the greenhouse effect of gases in the atmosphere would keep the ground at roughly 333 K (60 °C; 140 °F), and the temperature would decay exponentially with height.

However, when air is hot, it tends to expand, which lowers its density. Thus, hot air tends to rise and transfer heat upward. This is the process of convection. Convection comes to equilibrium when a parcel of air at a given altitude has the same density as its surroundings. Air is a poor conductor of heat, so a parcel of air will rise and fall without exchanging heat. This is known as an adiabatic process, which has a characteristic pressure-temperature dependence. As the pressure gets lower, the temperature decreases. The rate of decrease of temperature with elevation is known as the adiabatic lapse rate, which is approximately 9.8 °C per kilometer (or 5.4 °F per 1000 feet) of altitude.

Note that the presence of water in the atmosphere complicates the process of convection. Water vapor contains latent heat of vaporization. As air rises and cools, it eventually becomes saturated and cannot hold its quantity of water vapor. The water vapor condenses (forming clouds), and releases heat, which changes the lapse rate from the dry adiabatic lapse rate to the moist adiabatic lapse rate (5.5 °C per kilometer or 3 °F per 1000 feet) The actual lapse rate can vary by altitude and by location.

Therefore, moving up 100 meters on a mountain is roughly equivalent to moving 80 kilometers (45 miles or 0.75° of latitude) towards the nearest pole. This relationship is only approximate, however, since local factors such as proximity to oceans (such as the Arctic Ocean) can drastically modify the climate. As the altitude increases, the main form of precipitation becomes snow and the winds increase.

The effect of the climate on the ecology at an elevation can be largely captured through a combination of amount of precipitation, and the biotemperature, as described by Leslie Holdridge in 1947. Biotemperature is the mean temperature; all temperatures below 0 °C (32 °F) are considered to be 0 °C. When the temperature is below 0 °C, plants are dormant, so the exact temperature is unimportant. The peaks of mountains with permanent snow can have a biotemperature below 1.5 °C (34.7 °F).

Ecology

GlarusAlps
An alpine mire in the Swiss Alps

The colder climate on mountains affects the plants and animals residing on mountains. A particular set of plants and animals tend to be adapted to a relatively narrow range of climate. Thus, ecosystems tend to lie along elevation bands of roughly constant climate. This is called altitudinal zonation. In regions with dry climates, the tendency of mountains to have higher precipitation as well as lower temperatures also provides for varying conditions, which enhances zonation.

Some plants and animals found in altitudinal zones tend to become isolated since the conditions above and below a particular zone will be inhospitable and thus constrain their movements or dispersal. These isolated ecological systems are known as sky islands.

Altitudinal zones tend to follow a typical pattern. At the highest elevations, trees cannot grow, and whatever life may be present will be of the alpine type, resembling tundra. Just below the tree line, one may find subalpine forests of needleleaf trees, which can withstand cold, dry conditions. Below that, montane forests grow. In the temperate portions of the earth, those forests tend to be needleleaf trees, while in the tropics, they can be broadleaf trees growing in a rain forest.

Height

EverestfromKalarPatarcrop
Mount Everest, the highest peak on Earth

The height of a mountain is measured as distance above sea level.

Tallest mountains

The highest mountain in the Solar System is the Olympus Mons (27 km) on Mars. The highest mountain in the world is Mount Everest (8,848m)which is in Nepal/Tibet in Asia.

The "tallest" mountain in the world is Mauna Loa, in Hawaii. The "height" of a mountain is measured from sea level, but the "tallness" of a mountain is measured from its base, even if under water. The highest mountain in North America is Mount McKinley (6,194m) in Alaska in the USA. The highest in South America is Aconcagua (6,962m) in Argentina. For Africa, it is Kilimanjaro (5,963m) of Tanzania. In Europe, the highest mountain is in Russia called Elbrus (5,633m). Antarctica's highest mountain is Vinsin Massiff (5,140m). In Oceania, a mountain called Puncak Jaya (5,030m) is the highest there. This particular mountain is in Papua New Guinea / Indonesia.

Images


Mountain Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.