Geography of Missouri

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Major physiographic provinces of Missouri Missouri physiography provinces 1.jpg
Major physiographic provinces of Missouri
Geologic map of Missouri Missouri Geology Primary Rock Types v1.png
Geologic map of Missouri
Missouri map of Koppen climate classification. Missouri map of Koppen climate classification.svg
Missouri map of Köppen climate classification.

Missouri, a state near the geographical center of the United States, has three distinct physiographic divisions:

Missouri U.S. state in the United States

Missouri is a state in the Midwestern United States. With over six million residents, it is the 18th-most populous state of the Union. The largest urban areas are St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and Columbia; the capital is Jefferson City. The state is the 21st-most extensive in area. Missouri is bordered by eight states : Iowa to the north, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee to the east, Arkansas to the south and Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska to the west. In the South are the Ozarks, a forested highland, providing timber, minerals and recreation. The Missouri River, after which the state is named, flows through the center of the state into the Mississippi River, which makes up Missouri's eastern border.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or simply America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico.


Missouri Bootheel Southeastern portion of Missouri mostly extending below 30°30 north lattitude

The Missouri Bootheel is the southeasternmost part of the state of Missouri, extending south of 36°30' north latitude, so called because its shape in relation to the rest of the state resembles the heel of a boot. Strictly speaking, it is composed of the counties of Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot. However, the term is locally used to refer to the entire southeastern lowlands of Missouri located within the Mississippi Embayment, which includes parts of Butler, Mississippi, Ripley, Scott, Stoddard and extreme southern portions of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties. The largest city in the region is Kennett.

Mississippi embayment Low-lying basin filled with Cretaceous to recent sediments

The Mississippi Embayment is a physiographic feature in the south-central United States, part of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. It is essentially a northward continuation of the fluvial sediments of the Mississippi River Delta to its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. The current sedimentary area was formed in the Cretaceous and early Cenozoic by the filling with sediment of a pre-existing basin. An explanation for the embayment's formation was put forward by Van Arsdale and Cox in 2007: movement of the earth's crust brought this region over a volcanic "hotspot" in the Earth's mantle causing an upthrust of magma which formed the Appalachian-Ouachita range. Subsequent erosion caused a deep trough that was flooded by the Gulf of Mexico and eventually filled with sediment from the Mississippi River.

The boundary between the northern plains and the Ozark region follows the Missouri River from its mouth at St. Louis to Columbia. This also corresponds to the southernmost extent of glaciation during the Pre-Illinoian Stage which destroyed the remnant plateau to the north but left the ancient landforms to the south unaltered. The Ozark boundary runs southwestward from there towards Joplin at the southeast corner of Kansas. The boundary between the Ozark and lowland regions runs southwest from Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi River to the Arkansas border just southwest of Poplar Bluff. Missouri borders eight other US States, more than any other state except Tennessee, which also borders eight states.

Missouri River major river in the central United States, tributary of the Mississippi

The Missouri River is the longest river in North America. Rising in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, the Missouri flows east and south for 2,341 miles (3,767 km) before entering the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Missouri. The river drains a sparsely populated, semi-arid watershed of more than 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 km2), which includes parts of ten U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Although nominally considered a tributary of the Mississippi, the Missouri River above the confluence is much longer and carries a comparable volume of water. When combined with the lower Mississippi River, it forms the world's fourth longest river system.

Columbia, Missouri College town in the U.S state of Missouri

Columbia is a city in the U.S. state of Missouri. It is the county seat of Boone County and home to the University of Missouri. Founded in 1821, it is the principal city of the five-county Columbia metropolitan area. It is Missouri's fourth most-populous and fastest growing city, with an estimated 123,180 residents in 2018.

The Pre-Illinoian Stage is used by Quaternary geologists for the early and middle Pleistocene glacial and interglacial periods of geologic time in North America from ~2.5–0.2 Ma.


Northern Plains

The Dissected Till Plains portion of the northern plains region lies in the portion of the state north of the Missouri River, while the Osage plains portion extends into the southwestern portion of the state bordering the Ozark Plateau. Thus the northern plains covers an area slightly more than a third of the state. This region is a beautiful, rolling country, with a great abundance of streams.

Till Unsorted glacial sediment

Till or glacial till is unsorted glacial sediment.

It is more hilly and broken in its western half than in its eastern half. The elevation in the extreme northwestern Missouri is about 1,200 ft (370 m). and in the extreme northeastern portion about 500 ft (150 m)., while the rim of the region to the southeast, along the border of the Ozark region, has an elevation of about 900 ft (270 m). The valleys for the larger streams are about 250 to 300 ft (91 m) deep and sometimes 8 to 20 miles (32 km) wide with the country bordering them being the most broken of the region.

The smaller streams have so eroded the whole face of the country that little of the original surface plain is to be seen. The Mississippi River runs along the length of Missouri's eastern side and is skirted throughout by topographic relief of 400 to 600 ft (180 m). elevation.

Mississippi River largest river system in North America

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river and chief river of the second-largest drainage system on the North American continent, second only to the Hudson Bay drainage system. Its source is Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and it flows generally south for 2,320 miles (3,730 km) to the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains all or parts of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains. The main stem is entirely within the United States; the total drainage basin is 1,151,000 sq mi (2,980,000 km2), of which only about one percent is in Canada. The Mississippi ranks as the fourth-longest and fifteenth-largest river by discharge in the world. The river either borders or passes through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Ozark Plateau

The Ozark region is essentially a low dome, with local faulting and minor undulations, dominated by a ridge or, more exactly, a relatively even belt of highland that runs from near the Mississippi river about Ste. Genevieve to McDonald County on the Arkansas border. High rocky bluffs rise precipitously on the Mississippi, sometimes to a height of 150 ft (46 m) or so above the water, from the mouth of the Meramec River to Ste. Genevieve. These mark where that river cuts the Ozark ridge. Across the Mississippi River, this ridge is continued by the Shawnee Hills in Illinois.

Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri Eastern Missouri, United States

Sainte Genevieve County, often abbreviated Ste. Genevieve County, is a county located in the eastern portion of the U.S. state of Missouri. As of the 2010 census, the population was 18,145. The largest city and county seat is Ste. Genevieve. The county was officially organized on October 1, 1812, and is named after the Spanish district once located in the region, after Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris, France. It includes the earliest settlement west of the Mississippi River outside New Spain, part of the French colonial mid-Mississippi valley villages. It is one of the last places where the Paw Paw French is still spoken.

McDonald County, Missouri U.S. county in Missouri

McDonald County is a county located in the southwestern corner of the U.S. state of Missouri and is part of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rodgers, AR-MO metro area. As of the 2010 census, the population was 23,083. Its county seat is Pineville. The county was organized in 1849 and named for Sergeant Alexander McDonald, a soldier in the American Revolutionary War. The county has three sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Old McDonald County Courthouse and the Powell Bridge.

Meramec River river in the United States of America

The Meramec River, sometimes spelled Maramec River is one of the longest free-flowing waterways in the U.S. state of Missouri, draining 3,980 square miles (10,300 km2) while wandering 218 miles (351 km) from headwaters near Salem to where it empties into the Mississippi River near St. Louis at Arnold and Oakville. The Meramec watershed covers six Missouri Ozark Highland counties—Dent, Phelps, Crawford, Franklin, Jefferson, and St. Louis—and portions of eight others—Maries, Gasconade, Iron, Washington, Reynolds, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve, and Texas. Between its source and its mouth, it falls 1,025 feet (312 m). Year-round navigability begins above Maramec Spring, just south of St. James. The Meramec's size increases at the confluence of the Dry Fork, and its navigability continues until the river enters the Mississippi at Arnold, Missouri.

The sandstone member of the Ordovician Roubidoux Formation outcrops along many bluffs of the southern Ozarks Roubidoux sandstone bluff.JPG
The sandstone member of the Ordovician Roubidoux Formation outcrops along many bluffs of the southern Ozarks

The elevations of the crests in Missouri vary from 1,100 to 1,700 ft (520 m). This second physiographic region comprises somewhat less than two-thirds of the area of the state. The Burlington escarpment of Mississippian rocks, which in places is as much as 250 to 300 ft (91 m) in height, runs along the western edge of the Ordovician formations and divides the region into an eastern and a western area, known respectively to physiographers as the Salem Plateau and the Springfield Plateau. Headward erosion by the south flowing tributaries to the White River in northern Arkansas has created a southern escarpment to both the Springfield and Salem plateaus that runs from McDonald through Barry, Stone, Christian, Douglas, and Howell counties. To the south of this escarpment lies some of the more rugged and highly dissected parts of the Missouri Ozarks. The famed Shepherd of the Hills region near Branson lies within this rugged area. To the east of the West Plains plain lies the dissected valleys of the Eleven Point River and the Current River.

Superficially, each is a simple rolling plateau, much broken by erosion (though considerable undissected areas drained by underground channels remain), especially in the east, and dotted with hills. Some of these are residual outliers of the eroded Mississippian limestones to the west, and others are the summits of a Precambrian topography above and around which sedimentary formations were deposited and then eroded. There is no arrangement in chains, but only scattered rounded peaks and short ridges, with winding valleys about them.

The two highest points in the state are Taum Sauk Mountain at 1,772 ft (540 m) in the St. Francois Mountains in Iron County and Lead Hill just east of the community of Cedar Gap at 1,744 ft (532 m) in the southwestern corner of Wright County. Few localities have an elevation exceeding 1,400 ft (430 m). Rather broad, smooth valleys, well degraded hills with rounded summits, and despite the escarpments generally smooth contours and sky-lines, characterize the bulk of the Ozark region.

Mississippi Alluvial Plain

The third region, the lowlands of the south-east and part of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, has an area of some 3,000-square-mile (7,800 km2). It is an undulating country, for the most part well drained, but swampy in its lowest portions. The Mississippi is skirted with lagoons, lakes and morasses from Ste. Genevieve to the Arkansas border, and in places is confined by levees. These lowlands are the northernmost extent of the Mississippi embayment. The area is within the New Madrid Seismic Zone and includes the epicenter location of the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes at New Madrid, Missouri.


The drainage of the state is wholly into the Mississippi River, directly or indirectly, and to a large extent into either that river or the Missouri River within the borders of the state. The latter stream, crossing the state and cutting the eastern and western borders at or near St Louis and Kansas City respectively, has a length within Missouri of 430 miles (690 km). The areas drained into the Mississippi outside the state through the St. Francis, White and other minor streams are relatively small. The larger streams of the Ozark dome are of decided interest to the physiographer. Those of the White system have open trough valleys bordered by hills in their upper courses and canyons in their lower courses.

Both the Ozark region and the northern plain region are divided by minor escarpments into ten or twelve sub-regions. There are remarkable differences in the drainage areas of their two sides, with interesting illustrations of shifting water-partings; and the White, Gasconade, Osage and other rivers are remarkable for upland meanders, lying, not on flood-plains, but around the spurs of a highland country. These incised meanders have been interpreted to have formed by downward erosion after uplift of an older peneplain surface.

Many streams in Missouri are called "rivers" though they are small enough perhaps to be called "creeks". This is due to a direct translation of the French word "rivière" which implies a stream size smaller than the French word "fleuve", meaning "a river that flows to the sea". An example of this is "Loutre River", from "Rivière Loutre", or "Otter Stream".


Distribution of karst features in Missouri: darker red indicates greater cave density; losing stream courses are shown in yellow; blue spots indicate known springs. Missouri karst feature distribution v1.svg
Distribution of karst features in Missouri: darker red indicates greater cave density; losing stream courses are shown in yellow; blue spots indicate known springs.

The Ozarks region has a well-developed karst topography with numerous areas of sinkholes, stream capture, and cavern development.

Caves, within areas of limestone and dolomite bedrock, occur in great numbers in and near the Ozark Mountain region in the southwestern part of Missouri. More than a hundred have been discovered in Stone County alone, and there are many in Christian, Greene and McDonald counties.

Marvel Cave is located a short distance southeast of the center of Stone county. The entrance originally was through a large sink-hole at the top of Roark Mountain, though now an easier entrance has been made. Marvel Cave has a large hall-like room about 350 ft (110 m) long and about 125 ft (38 m) wide with bluish-grey limestone walls, and a vaulted roof, rising from 100 to 295 ft (90 m). Due to its acoustic properties the room has been named the Auditorium. At one end is a large stalagmite formation about 65 ft (20 m) in height and about 200 ft (61 m) in girth, called the White Throne.

Exploration of Jacobs Cavern, near Pineville, McDonald county, revealed human and animal skeletons along with crude implements. Crystal Cave, near Joplin, Jasper county, has its entire surface lined with calcite crystals and scalenohedron formations, from 1 to 2 ft (0.61 m) in length.

Other caves include Friede's Cave, about six miles (10 km) northeast of Rolla, Phelps County and Mark Twain Cave (in Marion County, about one mile (1.6 km) south of Hannibal), which has a deep pool containing many eyeless fish.

See also

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Dissected Till Plains physiographic section of the central United States

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Gasconade River river in the United States of America

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Osage Plains west-central Missouri, the southeastern third of Kansas, most of central Oklahoma, and extending into north-central Texas in the USA

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Wikisource-logo.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Missouri". Encyclopædia Britannica . 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 607–614. (See p. 608.)