America is a fascinating place. Being a geographer (and the son of two geographically curious parents), it is the landforms and landscapes that I find to be especially interesting. A plane flight to Texas (just a few days before the hurricane) gave me a chance to see some of that geography from 35,000 feet. Even on a hazy day, the view can be spectacular.
I am always struck by how many people get on a plane and never even look out the window. I, by contrast, am disappointed when the clouds get in the way of a great view. For those of you that don’t fly much or have forgotten there was a beautiful America below you when you fly, permit me to share a few geomorphology lessons from my trip.
The Coastal Plain – My journey began at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. All of us that have been to the beach understand how starkly different this region is from where we live. This same flat, sandy landscape runs from Cape Cod to the Texas Gulf Coast.
The Blue Ridge – A much harder group of rocks than those in our Ridge and Valley, the Blue Ridge stands taller than our central Pennsylvania mountains. Having been metamorphosed by heat and pressure, they not only stand higher but have a different shape that is easy to see from the air.
The Appalachian Ridge and Valley – The gentle folds of our own Ridge and Valley province look like a wrinkled green sheet from high in the sky. Once much higher mountains when they were originally folded 250 million years ago, they are actually stubs of those ancient peaks.
The Appalachian Plateau – Uplifted but not as badly deformed as the Ridge and Valley, the plateau begins on the western edge of Blair County. Rich in coal deposits, the strip mines are one of the most noticeable features from the air. (And they don’t look any more attractive from the air than they do from the ground.) The plateau runs from New York to Northern Alabama and actually continues as the Ozark Plateau on the other side of the Mississippi. As the plateau fades away in northern Alabama, we passed over several of the dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The Mississippi River Basin – The power of the Mississippi (especially to us Northeasterners) is nearly incomprehensible. The Mississippi and its nearby tributaries are responsible for the expansive flat landscape that stretches from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, more than 200 miles wide in some places. This particular trip gave me a chance to finally see the Yazoo River Basin and its unique drainage pattern. Beginning just south of Memphis, Tennessee and continuing southward to Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Yazoo and several of its tributaries run parallel to the Mississippi but do not meet it for more than 200 miles. This happens because of the massive amount of sediment that builds up along both rivers creating natural levees that prevent the rivers from meeting any sooner.
So next time you travel (whether by train, plane or automobile), look out the window. I guarantee you’ll see some amazing things.
John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday in the Mirror. Visit www.ircenvironment.org for a few birds’ eye views of his recent trip as well as more on sustainability issues in the community.