Environment of Virginia

Last updated
Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park Dark Hollow Falls Shenandoah NP 2007.jpg
Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park

The natural environment of Virginia encompasses the physical geography and biology of the U.S. state of Virginia. Virginia has a total area of 42,774.2 square miles (110,784.67 km2), including 3,180.13 square miles (8,236.5 km2) of water, making it the 35th-largest state by area. [1] Forests cover 65% of the state, wetlands and water cover 6% of the land in the state, while 5% of the state is a mixture of commercial, residential, and transitional. [2]


Virginia is bordered by Maryland and Washington, D.C. to the north and east; by the Atlantic Ocean to the east; by North Carolina and Tennessee to the south; by Kentucky to the west; and by West Virginia to the north and west. Due to a peculiarity of Virginia's original charter, its boundary with Maryland and Washington, D.C. does not extend past the low-water mark of the south shore of the Potomac River (unlike many boundaries that split a river down the middle). [3] The southern border is defined as the 36° 30′ parallel north, though surveyor error led to deviations of as much as three arcminutes. [4]

The state agencies whose primary foci are on the natural environment of Virginia are the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Physiogeographic regions and geology

Virginia is divided into five geographic regions. Virginia painted relief.png
Virginia is divided into five geographic regions.

Geologically, Virginia is divided into five regions, [5] while the EPA lists seven ecoregions with further precision. From east to west, the regions are as follows:

The Chesapeake Bay separates the contiguous portion of the Commonwealth from the two-county peninsula of Virginia's Eastern Shore. The bay was formed following a meteoroid impact crater during the Eocene. [6] Many of Virginia's rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay, including the Potomac, Rappahannock, James, and York, which create three peninsulas in the bay. [7] [8]
Reflecting Lake in Luray Caverns in the northern Shenendoah valley Reflecting cavern lake.jpg
Reflecting Lake in Luray Caverns in the northern Shenendoah valley

Coal mining takes place in the three mountainous regions at 40 distinct coal beds near Mesozoic basins. [15] Besides coal, resources such as slate, kyanite, sand, and gravel are mined, with an annual value over $2 billion as of 2006. [16]

Virginia has a low risk on earthquakes,[ citation needed ] especially in the northern part of the state. The Virginia seismic zone has not had a history of regular earthquake activity. Earthquakes are rarely above 4.5 in magnitude because Virginia is located centrally on the North American Plate, far from plate boundaries. Locations near tectonic plates suffer earthquakes frequently. The largest recorded earthquake, at an estimated 5.9 magnitude, was in 1897 near Blacksburg. [17] The largest since then was in August 2011, when a 5.8 magnitude quake struck near Mineral, Virginia and was felt moderately to strongly throughout the state.[ citation needed ]


Virginia map of Koppen climate classification Virginia map of Koppen climate classification.svg
Virginia map of Köppen climate classification

The climate of Virginia varies according to location, and becomes increasingly warmer and humid farther south and east. [18] Most of the state has a humid subtropical climate, from the Blue Ridge Mountains and southern Shenandoah Valley to the Atlantic coast. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, the climate becomes subtropical highland.[ citation needed ]


Black bear on Old Rag Mountain Juvenile American black bear at Old Rag mountain.jpg
Black bear on Old Rag Mountain

The World Wildlife Fund defines four ecoregions in Virginia: Middle Atlantic coastal forests near the Atlantic coast in the southeast corner of the state, Southeastern mixed forests on the Piedmont, Appalachian-Blue Ridge forests on the Appalachian Mountains, and Appalachian mixed mesophytic forests in the far west. [19]

According to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the oak-hickory forest is the most common forest community in Virginia. Common species include white oak, red oak, black oak, scarlet oak, chestnut oak, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory, tulip poplar, maple, beech, dogwood, black cherry, black locust, and black walnut. The oak-pine forest is the second largest type of forest with the afore mentioned oaks and the addition of loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, Virginia pine, black gum, sweetgum, hickories, sycamore, red cedar, and tulip poplar. This type of forest is found primarily on the coastal plain and piedmont. Lowland hardwoods include willow oak, water oak, blackgum, sweetgum, cottonwood, willow, ash, elm, hackberry, and red maple.[ citation needed ]

The lower altitudes are more likely to have small but dense stands of moisture-loving hemlocks and mosses in abundance, with hickory and oak in the Blue Ridge. [18] However, since the early 1990s, Gypsy moth infestations have eroded the dominance of oak forests. [20] Other common trees and plants include chestnut, maple, tulip poplar, mountain laurel, milkweed, daisies, and many species of ferns. The largest areas of wilderness are along the Atlantic coast and in the western mountains, which are likely home to the largest populations of trillium wildflowers in North America. [18] [21]

Mammals include white-tailed deer, black bear, beaver, bobcat, coyote, raccoon, groundhog, Virginia opossum, gray fox, red fox, river otter, snowshoe hare, southern bog lemming, common eastern chipmunk, common mink, common muskrat, cotton mouse, eastern spotted skunk, striped skunk, fox squirrel, gray squirrel, northern flying squirrel, marsh rabbit, and eastern cottontail rabbit. [22] Birds include cardinals, barred owls, Carolina chickadees, American crow, American goldfinch, American pipit, American robin, Baird's sandpiper, Baltimore oriole, barn owl, great blue heron, great horned owl, snow goose, herring gull, mallard, blue jay, swallow-tailed kite, American tree sparrow, American white pelican, brown pelican, bald-eagle, cattle egret, common loon, eastern bluebird, osprey, arctic peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, and wild turkeys. The peregrine falcon was reintroduced into Shenandoah National Park in the mid-1990s. [23]

Walleye, brook trout, Roanoke bass, and blue catfish are among the 210 known species of freshwater fish. [24] Running brooks with rocky bottoms are often inhabited by a plentiful amounts of crayfish and salamanders. [18] The Chesapeake Bay is the nation's largest and most biologically diverse estuary and is home to many species, including blue crab, clams, oysters, scallops, Chesapeake ray, eel, bay anchovies, American shad, Atlantic croaker, Atlantic sturgeon, black drum, black seabass, blue fish, hickory shad, longnose gar, red drum, spot, and rockfish (also known as striped bass). [25]

Protected lands

Cannon at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park ChancellorsvilleBattlefieldModern.jpg
Cannon at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Virginia has 30 National Park Service units, such as Great Falls Park and the Appalachian Trail, and one national park, the Shenandoah National Park. [26] Shenandoah was established in 1935. Almost 40% of the park's area (79,579 acres/322 km2) has been designated as wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System. [27] Parkways, such as the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which encompasses the scenic Skyline Drive, are among the most visited national park service sites nationwide. [28]

Additionally, there are 34 Virginia state parks and 17 state forests, run by the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Department of Forestry. [2] [29] The Chesapeake Bay, while not a national park, is protected by both state and federal legislation, and the jointly run Chesapeake Bay Program which conducts restoration on the bay and its watershed. The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge extends into North Carolina. [30] Several open-air museums and battlefields are located in the state, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Richmond National Battlefield, and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. [31]

As of March 26, 2010, there were 31 Superfund sites in Virginia on the National Priorities List, as designated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) environmental law. No additional sites are currently proposed for entry on the list. Four sites have been cleaned up and removed from the list. [32]

See also

Related Research Articles

Appalachian Mountains Mountain range in the eastern United States and Canada

The Appalachian Mountains, often called the Appalachians, are a system of mountains in eastern North America. The Appalachians first formed roughly 480 million years ago during the Ordovician Period. They once reached elevations similar to those of the Alps and the Rocky Mountains before experiencing natural erosion. The Appalachian chain is a barrier to east–west travel, as it forms a series of alternating ridgelines and valleys oriented in opposition to most highways and railroads running east–west.

Tuscarora Trail

The 252-mile (406 km) Tuscarora Trail is a long distance trail in the Ridge and Valley Appalachians that passes through the US states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In the south, the Tuscarora begins at a junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT) near Mathews Arm Campground, 0.4-mile (0.64 km) south of the AT's crossing of Skyline Drive at MP 21.1 in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. In the north, it rejoins the Appalachian Trail at the top of Blue Mountain just west of the Susquehanna River and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, creating a 435 mi (700.1 km) circuit known as the Tuscalachian Loop. The Tuscarora Trail was built as an alternative parallel route for the Appalachian Trail. It was built farther west, in a more wild corridor, because it was feared that development would force closure of the AT, before passage of the National Scenic Trails Act of 1968.

Blue Ridge Parkway scenic parkway in the United States

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a National Parkway and All-American Road in the United States, noted for its scenic beauty. The parkway, which is America's longest linear park, runs for 469 miles (755 km) through 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties, linking Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It runs mostly along the spine of the Blue Ridge, a major mountain chain that is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Its southern terminus is at U.S. 441 on the boundary between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina, from which it travels north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The roadway continues through Shenandoah as Skyline Drive, a similar scenic road which is managed by a different National Park Service unit. Both Skyline Drive and the Virginia portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway are part of Virginia State Route 48, though this designation is not signed.

Geography of North Carolina

The geography of North Carolina falls naturally into three divisions — the Appalachian Mountains in the west, the central Piedmont Plateau, and the eastern Atlantic Coastal Plain. North Carolina covers 53,821 square miles (139,396 km2) and is 503 miles (810 km) long by 150 miles (241 km) wide. The physical characteristics of the state can be pictured as a surface spread out upon a vast declivity, sloping down from the summits of the Smoky Mountains, an altitude of near seven thousand feet (2,130 m), to the ocean level.

Blue Ridge Mountains mountain range

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a physiographic province of the larger Appalachian Mountains range. The mountain range is located in the eastern United States, and extends 550 miles southwest from southern Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. This province consists of northern and southern physiographic regions, which divide near the Roanoke River gap. To the west of the Blue Ridge, between it and the bulk of the Appalachians, lies the Great Appalachian Valley, bordered on the west by the Ridge and Valley province of the Appalachian range.

Spruce Knob mountain in United States of America

Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet (1,482 m), is the highest point in the state of West Virginia and the summit of Spruce Mountain, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains.

George Washington and Jefferson National Forests

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are U.S. National Forests that combine to form one of the largest areas of public land in the Eastern United States. They cover 1.8 million acres (7,300 km2) of land in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Approximately 1 million acres (4,000 km2) of the forest are remote and undeveloped and 139,461 acres (564 km2) have been designated as wilderness areas, which eliminates future development.

Rockfish Gap

Rockfish Gap is a wind gap located in the Blue Ridge Mountains between Charlottesville and Waynesboro, Virginia, United States, through Afton Mountain, which is frequently used to refer to the gap.

Appalachian mixed mesophytic forests ecoregion in the eastern United States

The Appalachian mixed mesophytic forests is an ecoregion of the temperate broadleaf and mixed forests biome, as defined by the World Wildlife Fund. It consists of mesophytic plants west of the Appalachian Mountains in the Southeastern United States.

Western North Carolina region of North Carolina in the United States

Western North Carolina is the region of North Carolina which includes the Appalachian Mountains, thus it is often known geographically as the state's Mountain Region. It contains the highest mountains in the Eastern United States. Western North Carolina is sometimes included with upstate South Carolina as the "Western Carolinas", which is also counted as a single media market. The region covers an area of about 11,000 square miles (28,000 km2), and is roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts. The population of the region, as measured by the 2010 U.S. Census, is 1,473,241, which is approximately 15% of North Carolina's total population.

Appalachian–Blue Ridge forests ecoregion in the eastern United States

The Appalachian–Blue Ridge forests are an ecoregion in the Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests Biome, in the Eastern United States. The ecoregion is located in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, including the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It covers an area of about 61,500 square miles (159,000 km2) in: northeast Alabama and Georgia, northwest South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and central West Virginia and Pennsylvania; and small extensions into Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York.

North American Atlantic Region

North American Atlantic Region is a floristic region within the Holarctic Kingdom identified by Armen Takhtajan and Robert F. Thorne, spanning from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to the Great Plains and comprising a major part of the United States and southeastern portions of Canada. It is bordered by the Circumboreal floristic region in the north, by the Rocky Mountain and Madrean floristic regions in the west and by the Caribbean floristic region of the Neotropical Kingdom in the south of Florida. The flora of the region comprises two endemic monotypic families, Hydrastidaceae and Leitneriaceae, and is characterized by about a hundred of endemic genera. The degree of species endemism is very high, many species are Tertiary relicts, which survived the Wisconsin glaciation and are now concentrated in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. A number of genera are shared only with the Canadian floristic province of the Circumboreal region. Moreover, as has long been noted, a large number of relict genera are shared with the relatively distant Eastern Asiatic Region and sometimes Southeast Asia. R. F. Thorne counted at least 74 genera restricted to eastern North America and Asia. The fossil record indicates that during the Tertiary period a warm temperate zone extended across much of the Northern Hemisphere, linking America to Asia.

Cove (Appalachian Mountains) A small valley in the Appalachian Mountains between two ridge lines

In the central and southern Appalachian Mountains of Eastern North America, a cove is a small valley between two ridge lines that is closed at one or both ends.

Shenandoah National Park 195,000 acres in Virginia (US) maintained by the National Park Service

Shenandoah National Park is an American national park that encompasses part of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the state of Virginia. The park is long and narrow, with the Shenandoah River and its broad valley to the west, and the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont to the east. Skyline Drive is the main park road, generally traversing near the ridgeline of the mountains. Almost 40% of the land area—79,579 acres —has been designated as wilderness and is protected as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The highest peak is Hawksbill Mountain at 4,051 feet (1,235 m).

Ramseys Draft Wilderness

Ramsey's Draft Wilderness is a designated wilderness area in the North River Ranger District of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests of Virginia in the United States. The wilderness area was established in 1984 and comprises 6,518 acres (26.38 km2). It is administered by the US Forest Service.

Humpback Rock is a massive greenstone outcropping near the peak of Humpback Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Augusta County and Nelson County, Virginia, United States, with a summit elevation of 3,080 feet (940 m). The rock formation is so named for the visual effect of a "hump" it creates on the western face of the mountain.

Southeastern mixed forests Ecoregion (WWF)

The Southeastern mixed forests are an ecoregion of the temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome, in the lower portion of the Eastern United States.

Glenwood Cluster

The Glenwood Cluster is a region in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests recognized by The Wilderness Society for its rich biodiversity, scenery, wildflower displays, cold-water trout streams and horse trails. It offers a unique habitat for rare plants, salamanders and other rare species. The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail traverse the area, giving ready access with views to the east of the Piedmont region and to the west of the Valley of Virginia.

The geology of Virginia began to form 1.8 billion years ago and potentially even earlier. The oldest rocks in the state were metamorphosed during the Grenville orogeny, a mountain building event beginning 1.2 billion years ago in the Proterozoic, which obscured older rocks. Throughout the Proterozoic and Paleozoic, Virginia experienced igneous intrusions, carbonate and sandstone deposition, and a series of other mountain building events which defined the terrain of the inland parts of the state. The closing of the Iapetus Ocean, to form the supercontinent Pangaea added additional small landmasses, some of which are now hidden beneath thick Atlantic Coastal Plain sediments. The region subsequently experienced the rifting open of the Atlantic Ocean in the Mesozoic, the development of the Coastal Plain, isolated volcanism and a series of marine transgressions that flooded much of the area. Virginia has extensive coal, deposits of oil and natural gas, as well as deposits of other minerals and metals, including vermiculite, kyanite and uranium.


  1. "2000 Census of Population and Housing" (PDF). United States Census Bureau . April 2004. p. 71. Retrieved November 3, 2009.
  2. 1 2 "Virginia's Forest Resources". Natural Resource Education Guide. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. January 21, 2008. Retrieved February 8, 2008.
  3. "Supreme Court Rules for Virginia in Potomac Conflict". The Sea Grant Law Center. University of Mississippi. 2003. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  4. Hubbard, Jr. 2009 , p. 140
  5. The Encyclopedia of Virginia 1999 , pp. 2–15
  6. "Fact Sheet 102-98 - The Chesapeake Bay: Geologic Product of Rising Sea Level". United States Geological Survey. November 18, 1998. Retrieved August 24, 2009.
  7. Burnham & Burnham 2004 , pp. 7, 56−57
  8. "Rivers and Watersheds". The Geology of Virginia. College of William and Mary. February 23, 2007. Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. Retrieved April 11, 2008.
  9. Pazzaglia 2006 , pp. 135−138
  10. "Virginia's Agricultural Resources". Natural Resource Education Guide. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. January 21, 2008. Retrieved February 8, 2008.
  11. Burnham & Burnham 2004 , p. 277
  12. "Physiographic Regions of Virginia". The Geology of Virginia. College of William and Mary. February 16, 2007. Archived from the original on September 15, 2008. Retrieved April 7, 2008.
  13. "Caves" (PDF). Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. July 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 17, 2009. Retrieved August 24, 2009.
  14. Palmer 1998 , pp. 49−51
  15. "Coal". Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. 2006. Archived from the original on August 17, 2009. Retrieved August 24, 2009.
  16. "About DMME". Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. 2006. Archived from the original on October 8, 2009. Retrieved September 11, 2009.
  17. "Largest Earthquake in Virginia". United States Geological Survey. January 25, 2008. Retrieved April 12, 2008.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Burnham & Burnham 2004 , pp. 1−3
  19. Olson, D. M, E. Dinerstein; et al. (2001). "Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World: A New Map of Life on Earth". BioScience . 51 (11): 933–938. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2001)051[0933:TEOTWA]2.0.CO;2. Archived from the original on 2011-10-14.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  20. "Shenandoah National Park — Forests". National Park Service. July 25, 2006. Retrieved September 10, 2007.
  21. Carroll & Miller 2002 , pp. xi−xii
  22. "Species Information: Mammals". Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. 2008. Retrieved November 15, 2008.
  23. "Shenandoah National Park — Birds". National Park Service. July 25, 2006. Retrieved September 1, 2007.
  24. "Virginia Fishes". Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. 2008. Retrieved November 15, 2008.
  25. "Bay Biology". Chesapeake Bay Program. January 5, 2006. Archived from the original on February 11, 2008. Retrieved February 4, 2008.
  26. "Virginia". National Park Service. 2008. Retrieved November 29, 2008.
  27. Carroll & Miller 2002 , p. 158
  28. Statistical Abstract 2008; National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior; National Park Service Social Science Program; Denver, Colorado; 2009
  29. "Park Locations". Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. November 9, 2007. Retrieved January 26, 2008.
  30. Smith 2008 , pp. 152–153, 356
  31. Howard, Burnham & Burnham 2006 , pp. 88, 206, 292
  32. "National Priorities List". United States Enivironmental Protection Agency. Retrieved May 2, 2010.