Mapped: The United States of Elevation
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Mapped: The United States of Elevation

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Mapped: The United States of Elevation

If you contrast the world’s mountains to the actual size of the Earth, they are just tiny bumps.

In fact, if you had a globe that was 12-inches in diameter with mountains accurately depicted to scale, Mt. Everest would protrude from the surface at just the thickness of two sheets of paper.

But while these rocky formations seem insignificant from the vacuum of space, for us that live on Earth they are much more relevant. Mountains dictate everything from weather patterns to travel routes, and these geographical features have helped shape human society as we know it.

Elevation, Exaggerated

Today’s short video loop comes from Reddit user newishtodc, and it shows the elevation profile of most of the continental United States.

Pulling data from the USGS, the video loop actually exaggerates the scale of the topography so that elevation changes are much more pronounced. Instead of getting the “bumps on a surface” effect, it allows us to clearly see where the mountainous regions are.

Here’s another version, this time including Alaska, Canada, and parts of Mexico:

Peak Elevation

As you likely noticed in both videos, mountains are particularly abundant on the western side of the continent.

What you may not have realized, however, is that the highest peaks in North America are exclusively found in just three different subregions: Alaska (U.S.), Yukon (Canada), and the Cordillera Neovolcanica (Mexico).

The 10 Highest Peaks in North America

RankMountainLocationRangeElevation
#1Denali🇺🇸 AlaskaAlaska Range20,310 ft (6,190 m)
#2Mount Logan🇨🇦 YukonSaint Elias Mountains19,551 ft (5,959 m)
#3Pico de Orizaba🇲🇽 MexicoCordillera Neovolcanica18,491 ft (5,636 m)
#4Mount Saint Elias🇺🇸 AlaskaSaint Elias Mountains18,009 ft (5,489 m)
#5Popocatépetl🇲🇽 MexicoCordillera Neovolcanica17,749 ft (5,410 m)
#6Mount Foraker🇺🇸 AlaskaAlaska Range17,400 ft (5,304 m)
#7Mount Lucania🇨🇦 YukonSaint Elias Mountains17,257 ft (5,260 m)
#8Iztaccíhuatl🇲🇽 MexicoCordillera Neovolcanica17,159 ft (5,230 m)
#9King Peak🇨🇦 YukonSaint Elias Mountains16,972 ft (5,173 m)
#10Mount Bona🇺🇸 AlaskaSaint Elias Mountains16,550 ft (5,044 m)

The highest mountain on the continent is Denali—although you may know it as Mt. McKinley. The name change was actually requested by Alaska back in 1975, but it wasn’t officially recognized by the U.S. government until 2015, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to the state.

Denali isn’t the only massive mountain in Alaska, and the state is actually home to all 10 of the highest peaks found in the United States.

The tallest mountain in California (Mt. Whitney, 14,505 ft) comes in at #11 on the U.S. list, while Colorado’s highest (Mt. Elbert, 14,440 ft) comes in the #14 spot nationally. Finally, the highest peak in Washington State (Mt. Rainier, 14,417 ft) is at #17.

Flatter Than a Pancake?

In the above animations, it’s also possible to see the regions that are dead flat.

Despite having a reputation for being flatter than a pancake, Kansas isn’t anywhere near the flattest state. That particular designation goes to Florida, where the top elevation is just 345 ft (105 m) above sea level.

Strangely, Florida is so flat that many of the tallest buildings in Miami easily surpass the highest natural point in the state in terms of height. The Panorama Tower, for example, is 868 ft (265 m) tall, making it more than double the height of the highest hill in Florida (Britton Hill).

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Misc

Mapped: Second Primary Languages Around the World

This fascinating map highlights the second most commonly spoken primary language in almost nearly every country.

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Second Languages Around the World Shareable

Mapped: Second Primary Languages Around the World

After the primary language, what second languages are used as native tongues in your country?

The answer reveals a lot about history and location. Whether through immigration, colonization, or local culture, a primary language can either spread around the world or remain rooted in place.

This map from MoveHub shows the second most commonly spoken primary language in most countries, using data from the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia as of February 2021.

The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Languages

First, it’s important to differentiate between primary languages and secondary languages.

A primary language—also known as a first or native language—is the language we use most frequently to communicate. These are languages we are usually born with, have a lot of exposure to, and use at home.

On the other hand, a secondary language is one we learn or pick up after our primary language. In many countries, English is the most commonly learned, with close to 1 billion speakers.

But a map of common second languages can simply show just how many countries prioritize learning English, the de-facto international language in many organizations. Instead, this map highlights the movement of people by showing the second-most common primary language.

The Second Most Common Primary Languages by Country

Even when filtering by primary language use, however, English and other Indo-European languages dominate the world.

With 55 countries speaking it as the second-most common primary language, English came out on top.

Top 10 Most Popular Second Primary LanguagesNumber of Countries
English55
French14
Russian13
Spanish8
Creole8
Arabic6
Kurdish4
Portugese4
Italian3
Quechua3

The use of English as a second primary language was primarily concentrated in Western Europe, Northern Africa, and Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Similarly to second-place French with 14 countries and third-place Russian with 13 countries, English was most common in proximity to English-speaking countries or where there was a history of immigration.

Other second-most common primary languages highlighted different cultures within countries, such as China’s second-most common language Cantonese. Alternatively, they showed the primary indigenous language before colonization, such as the Quechua languages in South America.

What other interesting or surprising language patterns can you spot in the map above?

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Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

This detailed map looks at where humans have (and haven’t) modified Earth’s terrestrial environment. See human impact in incredible detail.

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human impact on earths surface

Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll likely hit that milestone in 2023), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.

Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.

Defining Human Impact

Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:

  1. Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns
  2. Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures
  3. Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted
  4. Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas
  5. Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable
  6. Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways
  7. Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)
  8. Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access
  9. Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation
  10. Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution

The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.

A Closer Look at Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.

Land Use Contrasts: Egypt

Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.

egypt land use impact zone

The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.

Intensive Modification: Netherlands

The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.

netherlands land use impact zone

The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.

Resource Extraction: West Virginia

It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.

west virginia land use impact zone

The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.

You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?

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