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The great diversity of the African environment makes it difficult to generalize about the continent. While much of the continent consists of vast plains with little relief, there are also towering volcanic peaks and the largest rift valley system in the world. The climate ranges from the year-round heat and humidity of equatorial regions to the dryness of the world’s largest desert to mountaintop conditions cold enough to support glaciers. It contains regions of biological significance due to their biodiversity and huge numbers of species found nowhere else.

The African environment has long been mistakenly seen as hostile, foreboding, and tragically in decline. Popular descriptions of Africa such as “the dark continent,” images of untamed wilderness in nature publications, and sensationalized press coverage of disasters such as droughts and famines have shaped these perceptions of Africa. Geographers’ accounts of Africa used to attribute the underdevelopment of the continent to its unfavorable environment—its oppressive climate, infertile soil, polluted water, and exotic diseases.

These days have begun to wane. Increased scientific research on the African environment has done much to dispel old misconceptions and to provide insights into the physical processes that give shape to the landscape. The relationship of African societies to the environment is also much better understood. Yet much remains to be done before this huge and complex continent is well known and appreciated, especially by the general public.

Contributors

The Natural Environment section of this article was contributed by Robert Stock.

 
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