Geography of South America

Geography of South America

Geographically, South America is generally considered a continent forming the southern portion of the American landmass, south and east of the Panama-Colombia border by most authorities, or south and east of the Panama Canal by some. On rare occasions, South and North America are considered a single continent or supercontinent, while constituent regions are infrequently considered subcontinents. Geopolitically and geographically, all of Panama – including the segment east of the Panama Canal in the isthmus – is generally considered a part of North America alone and among the countries of Central America.

It became attached to North America only recently (geologically speaking) with the formation of the Isthmus of Panama some 3 million years ago, which resulted in the Great American Interchange. The Andes, likewise a comparatively young and seismically restless mountain range, run down the western edge of the continent; the land to the east of the Andes is largely tropical rain forest, the vast Amazon River basin. The continent also contains drier regions such as Patagonia and the extremely arid Atacama desert.

The South American continent also includes various islands, most of which belong to countries on the continent. The Caribbean territories are grouped with North America. The South American nations that border the Caribbean Sea – including Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana – are also known as Caribbean South America.

Topography and geology

The geographical structure of South America is deceptively simple for a continent-sized landmass. The continent's topography is often likened to a huge bowl owing to its flat interior almost ringed by high mountains. With the exception of narrow coastal plains on the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, there are three main topographic features: the Andes, a central lowland, and the extensive Brazilian and Guiana Highlands in the east.

The Andes are a Cenozoic mountain range formed (and still forming) by the continuing collision of the American and Pacific tectonic plates. In their northern and central reaches the Andes are quite wide and contain extensive plateaux such as the Altiplano and a number of major valleys such as that of the Rio Magdalena. These contain three of the world highest capitals: Bogotá, Quito and highest of all, La Paz, Bolivia. The southern Andes have been eroded by the Patagonian Ice Sheet and are much lower and narrower. There are a number of large glaciers in the northern part, but from 19° to 27°S the climate is so arid that no permanent ice can form even on the highest peaks. Permafrost, however, is widespread in this section of the Altiplano and continuous above convert|5600|m|ft|0.

The climate of the coastal belt west of the Andes shows violent contrasts, including two of the world's wettest regions in the Colombian Chocó and southern Chile and the world's driest desert, the Atacama between around 5° and 30°S. This dry area is cooled by the Humboldt Current and upwelling, giving rise to the largest fisheries in the world. There are two small transition zones between the perhumid and perarid regions: around Guayaquil with summer rain, and the Mediterranean climate region of central Chile. Both these regions have highly erratic rainfall strongly influenced by El Niño events, which bring major floods. In contrast, the high plateaux of the Andes are drier than normal during El Niño episodes.

The very fertile soils from the erosion of the Andes formed the basis for the continent's only pre-Columbian civilization: that of the Inca Empire, and are still a major agricultural region. The Altiplano also contains many rare minerals such as copper, tin, mercury ore and, in the Atacama, nitrates. East of the Andes in Peru is what is regarded as the most important biodiversity hotspot in the world with its unique forests that form the western edge of the world's largest rainforest, the Amazon Rainforest.

East of the Andes is a large lowland drained by a small number of rivers, including the two largest in the world by drainage area - the Amazon River and the more southerly Paraná River. The other major river of this central lowland is the Orinoco River, which has a natural channel linking it with the Amazon. Most of this central lowland is sparsely populated because the soils are heavily leached, but in the south is the very fertile pampas of Argentina - one of the world's major food-producing regions where wheat and beef cattle are pre-eminent. The natural vegetation of the northern lowlands are either savanna in the northern "llanos" and southern "campos", or tropical rainforest throughout most of the Amazon basin. Efforts to develop agriculture, outside of fertile floodplains of rivers descending from the Andes, have been largely failures because of the soils. Cattle have long been raised in the "llanos" of northern Colombia and Venezuela, but petroleum is now the dominant industry in the northern lowlands, making Venezuela the richest country in the continent.

The eastern highlands are much older than the Andes, being pre-Cambrian in origin, but are still in places extremely spectacular and rugged, especially in the wet tepuis of Venezuela, Guyana and Roraima. The Amazon River has cut a large valley through a former highland, and to the east is a relatively low plateau comprising the Nordeste and Southeast regions of Brazil. In the north of this region is the arid "sertão", a poor region consistently affected by extremely erratic rainfall, and the humid "zona da mata", once home of the unique Atlantic Rainforest with many species not found in the Amazon, and now a centre for sugarcane. Further south, the main land use is coffee, whilst São Paolo is the economic heart of the continent with its industry.

South of about Santa Catarina, the highlands fade out to low plains in Uruguay.

East of the Andes in Argentina, there are a number of rugged, generally dry "sierras", the highest of which is the Sierra de Cordoba near the city of that name. Argentine Patagonia is a Paleozoic plateau now heavily dissected by rivers flowing from the Andes.


The largest country in South America by far, in both area and population, is Brazil, followed by Argentina. Regions in South America include the Andean States, the Guianas, the Southern Cone, and Eastern South America.

ee also

* Tepui
* Guiana Highlands


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