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An Expansive and Diverse Nation, Geographic Diversity

annexation of Hawaii, purchase of Alaska, meltwater, crop irrigation, major river systems

During the settlement of the nation, immigrants moved westward across the United States and found a rich and varied natural environment. From the original coastal colonies, settlers made their way over the Appalachian Mountains beginning in the 1700s. Beyond the mountains lay the vast rolling territory drained by the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. There settlers encountered the rich farmlands of the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi Delta, and the Great Plains. For decades, the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the arid landscape of the Southwest discouraged movement further west. In the mid-1800s, however, spurred by the discovery of gold in California, determined settlers followed trails through the mountain passes to reach the West Coast. In the valleys of California and Oregon, they found productive agricultural land, and they began harvesting the timber reserves from the untouched forests of the Pacific Northwest. The purchase of Alaska in 1867 added a mountainous northern territory rich in natural resources. The annexation of Hawaii in 1898 gave the United States what would be its only tropical state. The United States has been blessed with many natural advantages, such as climates favorable for agriculture, extensive internal waterways, and abundant natural resources.

All four of the world’s most productive agricultural climates are found in the United States. These climatic regions display a favorable mix of rain and sun as well as a long growing season, and together, they cover more than a third of the country. Favorable climates have allowed farmers to produce vast quantities of grain for human consumption and crops to feed animals. These remarkable climatic areas make the United States one of the world’s leading agricultural countries.

Another major natural advantage—one that is taken for granted by most Americans—is that the major river systems (the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Colorado, and Rio Grande systems) flow south. If these rivers flowed north, as rivers do in Russian Siberia, ice and frozen soil would block the meltwater, causing floods that would saturate the land and render it unusable for agriculture. Instead, when spring thaws arrive in the interior mountains of the United States, meltwater flows unimpeded through the river systems to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Gulf of California. This almost uninterrupted flow of water provides ample supplies for drinking water and for crop irrigation and industrial production.

The United States has many other natural advantages. A wide array of valuable mineral resources, such as oil, natural gas, iron ore, coal, lead, zinc, phosphate, silver, and copper, benefits mining and industry. The shallow waters along the coastline, known as the continental shelf, serve as a rich breeding ground for marine life, which promotes commercial and sport fishing. The comprehensive network of rivers also provides transportation routes for bulk cargo and the potential for the development of hydroelectricity.

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