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Mount Everest, Earth's highest mountain Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006.jpg
Mount Everest, Earth's highest mountain
Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain 080103 hakkai fuji.jpg
Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain
Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa's highest mountain Mount Kilimanjaro.jpg
Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa's highest mountain

A mountain is an elevated portion of the Earth's crust, generally with steep sides that show significant exposed bedrock. A mountain differs from a plateau in having a limited summit area, and is larger than a hill, typically rising at least 300 metres (1000 feet) above the surrounding land. A few mountains are isolated summits, but most occur in mountain ranges. [1]


Mountains are formed through tectonic forces, erosion, or volcanism, [1] which act on time scales of up to tens of millions of years. [2] Once mountain building ceases, mountains are slowly leveled through the action of weathering, through slumping and other forms of mass wasting, as well as through erosion by rivers and glaciers. [3]

High elevations on mountains produce colder climates than at sea level at similar latitude. These colder climates strongly affect the ecosystems of mountains: different elevations have different plants and animals. Because of the less hospitable terrain and climate, mountains tend to be used less for agriculture and more for resource extraction, such as mining and logging, along with recreation, such as mountain climbing and skiing.

The highest mountain on Earth is Mount Everest in the Himalayas of Asia, whose summit is 8,850 m (29,035 ft) above mean sea level. The highest known mountain on any planet in the Solar System is Olympus Mons on Mars at 21,171 m (69,459 ft).


Peaks of Mount Kenya Batian Nelion and pt Slade in the foreground Mt Kenya.JPG
Peaks of Mount Kenya
Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia and Europe Mount Elbrus May 2008.jpg
Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia and Europe
Puncak Jaya in Indonesia, the highest mountain in Oceania Puncakjaya.jpg
Puncak Jaya in Indonesia, the highest mountain in Oceania

There is no universally accepted definition of a mountain. Elevation, volume, relief, steepness, spacing and continuity have been used as criteria for defining a mountain. [4] In the Oxford English Dictionary a mountain is defined as "a natural elevation of the earth surface rising more or less abruptly from the surrounding level and attaining an altitude which, relatively to the adjacent elevation, is impressive or notable." [4]

Whether a landform is called a mountain may depend on local usage. Mount Scott outside Lawton, Oklahoma, USA, is only 251 m (823 ft) from its base to its highest point. Whittow's Dictionary of Physical Geography [5] states "Some authorities regard eminences above 600 metres (1,969 ft) as mountains, those below being referred to as hills."

In the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, a mountain is usually defined as any summit at least 2,000 feet (610 m) high, [6] which accords with the official UK government's definition that a mountain, for the purposes of access, is a summit of 2,000 feet (610 m) or higher. [7] In addition, some definitions also include a topographical prominence requirement, such as that the mountain rises 300 metres (984 ft) above the surrounding terrain. [1] At one time the U.S. Board on Geographic Names defined a mountain as being 1,000 feet (305 m) or taller, [8] but has abandoned the definition since the 1970s. Any similar landform lower than this height was considered a hill. However, today, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) concludes that these terms do not have technical definitions in the US. [9]

The UN Environmental Programme's definition of "mountainous environment" includes any of the following: [10] :74

Using these definitions, mountains cover 33% of Eurasia, 19% of South America, 24% of North America, and 14% of Africa. [10] :14 As a whole, 24% of the Earth's land mass is mountainous. [11]


There are three main types of mountains: volcanic, fold, and block. [12] All three types are formed from plate tectonics: when portions of the Earth's crust move, crumple, and dive. Compressional forces, isostatic uplift and intrusion of igneous matter forces surface rock upward, creating a landform higher than the surrounding features. The height of the feature makes it either a hill or, if higher and steeper, a mountain. Major mountains tend to occur in long linear arcs, indicating tectonic plate boundaries and activity.


Geological cross-section of Fuji volcano Geologycal cross-section of Fuji.png
Geological cross-section of Fuji volcano

Volcanoes are formed when a plate is pushed below another plate, or at a mid-ocean ridge or hotspot. [13] At a depth of around 100 km, melting occurs in rock above the slab (due to the addition of water), and forms magma that reaches the surface. When the magma reaches the surface, it often builds a volcanic mountain, such as a shield volcano or a stratovolcano. [4] :194 Examples of volcanoes include Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The magma does not have to reach the surface in order to create a mountain: magma that solidifies below ground can still form dome mountains, such as Navajo Mountain in the US. [14]

Fold mountains

Illustration of mountains that developed on a fold that has been thrusted Lewis overthrust fault nh10f.jpg
Illustration of mountains that developed on a fold that has been thrusted

Fold mountains occur when two plates collide: shortening occurs along thrust faults and the crust is overthickened. [15] Since the less dense continental crust "floats" on the denser mantle rocks beneath, the weight of any crustal material forced upward to form hills, plateaus or mountains must be balanced by the buoyancy force of a much greater volume forced downward into the mantle. Thus the continental crust is normally much thicker under mountains, compared to lower lying areas. [16] Rock can fold either symmetrically or asymmetrically. The upfolds are anticlines and the downfolds are synclines: in asymmetric folding there may also be recumbent and overturned folds. The Balkan Mountains [17] and the Jura Mountains [18] are examples of fold mountains.

Block mountains

Pirin Mountain, Bulgaria, part of the fault-block Rila-Rhodope massif Vihren Pirin IMG 8898.jpg
Pirin Mountain, Bulgaria, part of the fault-block Rila-Rhodope massif

Block mountains are caused by faults in the crust: a plane where rocks have moved past each other. When rocks on one side of a fault rise relative to the other, it can form a mountain. [19] The uplifted blocks are block mountains or horsts. The intervening dropped blocks are termed graben: these can be small or form extensive rift valley systems. This form of landscape can be seen in East Africa, [20] the Vosges and Rhine valley, [21] and the Basin and Range Province of Western North America. [22] These areas often occur when the regional stress is extensional and the crust is thinned. [22]


The Catskills in Upstate New York represent an eroded plateau. Slide Mountain Catskills.jpg
The Catskills in Upstate New York represent an eroded plateau.

During and following uplift, mountains are subjected to the agents of erosion (water, wind, ice, and gravity) which gradually wear the uplifted area down. Erosion causes the surface of mountains to be younger than the rocks that form the mountains themselves. [23] :160 Glacial processes produce characteristic landforms, such as pyramidal peaks, knife-edge arêtes, and bowl-shaped cirques that can contain lakes. [24] Plateau mountains, such as the Catskills, are formed from the erosion of an uplifted plateau. [25]


A combination of high latitude and high altitude makes the northern Urals in picture to have climatic conditions that make the ground barren. Ural mountains 3 448122223 93fa978a6d b.jpg
A combination of high latitude and high altitude makes the northern Urals in picture to have climatic conditions that make the ground barren.

Climate in the mountains becomes colder at high elevations, due to an interaction between radiation and convection. Sunlight in the visible spectrum hits the ground and heats it. The ground then heats the air at the surface. If radiation were the only way to transfer heat from the ground to space, the greenhouse effect of gases in the atmosphere would keep the ground at roughly 333 K (60 °C; 140 °F), and the temperature would decay exponentially with height. [26]

However, when air is hot, it tends to expand, which lowers its density. Thus, hot air tends to rise and transfer heat upward. This is the process of convection. Convection comes to equilibrium when a parcel of air at a given altitude has the same density as its surroundings. Air is a poor conductor of heat, so a parcel of air will rise and fall without exchanging heat. This is known as an adiabatic process, which has a characteristic pressure-temperature dependence. As the pressure gets lower, the temperature decreases. The rate of decrease of temperature with elevation is known as the adiabatic lapse rate, which is approximately 9.8 °C per kilometre (or 5.4 °F (3.0 °C) per 1000 feet) of altitude. [26]

The presence of water in the atmosphere complicates the process of convection. Water vapor contains latent heat of vaporization. As air rises and cools, it eventually becomes saturated and cannot hold its quantity of water vapor. The water vapor condenses (forming clouds), and releases heat, which changes the lapse rate from the dry adiabatic lapse rate to the moist adiabatic lapse rate (5.5 °C per kilometre or 3 °F (1.7 °C) per 1000 feet) [27] The actual lapse rate can vary by altitude and by location.

Mount Siguniang, Sichuan, China Si Gu Niang Shan Jing Qu Mount Siguniang Scenic Area 45.jpg
Mount Siguniang, Sichuan, China

Therefore, moving up 100 metres on a mountain is roughly equivalent to moving 80 kilometres (45 miles or 0.75° of latitude) towards the nearest pole. [10] :15 This relationship is only approximate, however, since local factors such as proximity to oceans (such as the Arctic Ocean) can drastically modify the climate. [28] As the altitude increases, the main form of precipitation becomes snow and the winds increase. [10] :12

The effect of the climate on the ecology at an elevation can be largely captured through a combination of amount of precipitation, and the biotemperature, as described by Leslie Holdridge in 1947. [29] Biotemperature is the mean temperature; all temperatures below 0 °C (32 °F) are considered to be 0 °C. When the temperature is below 0 °C, plants are dormant, so the exact temperature is unimportant. The peaks of mountains with permanent snow can have a biotemperature below 1.5 °C (34.7 °F).


An alpine mire in the Swiss Alps GlarusAlps.jpg
An alpine mire in the Swiss Alps

The colder climate on mountains affects the plants and animals residing on mountains. A particular set of plants and animals tend to be adapted to a relatively narrow range of climate. Thus, ecosystems tend to lie along elevation bands of roughly constant climate. This is called altitudinal zonation. [30] In regions with dry climates, the tendency of mountains to have higher precipitation as well as lower temperatures also provides for varying conditions, which enhances zonation. [10] [31]

Some plants and animals found in altitudinal zones tend to become isolated since the conditions above and below a particular zone will be inhospitable and thus constrain their movements or dispersal. These isolated ecological systems are known as sky islands. [32]

Altitudinal zones tend to follow a typical pattern. At the highest elevations, trees cannot grow, and whatever life may be present will be of the alpine type, resembling tundra. [31] Just below the tree line, one may find subalpine forests of needleleaf trees, which can withstand cold, dry conditions. [33] Below that, montane forests grow. In the temperate portions of the earth, those forests tend to be needleleaf trees, while in the tropics, they can be broadleaf trees growing in a rain forest.

Mountains and humans

Mount Ararat in Turkey, as seen from Khor Virap, Armenia Monasterio Khor Virap, Armenia, 2016-10-01, DD 25.jpg
Mount Ararat in Turkey, as seen from Khor Virap, Armenia

The highest known permanently tolerable altitude is at 5,950 metres (19,520 ft). [34] At very high altitudes, the decreasing atmospheric pressure means that less oxygen is available for breathing, and there is less protection against solar radiation (UV). [10] Above 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) elevation, there is not enough oxygen to support human life. This is sometimes referred to as the "death zone". [35] The summits of Mount Everest and K2 are in the death zone.

Mountain societies and economies

Mountains are generally less preferable for human habitation than lowlands, because of harsh weather and little level ground suitable for agriculture. While 7% of the land area of Earth is above 2,500 metres (8,200 ft), [10] :14 only 140 million people live above that altitude [36] and only 20-30 million people above 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) elevation. [37] About half of mountain dwellers live in the Andes, Central Asia, and Africa. [11]

The city of La Paz reaches up to 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) in elevation. La Paz Skyline.jpg
The city of La Paz reaches up to 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) in elevation.

With limited access to infrastructure, only a handful of human communities exist above 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) of elevation. Many are small and have heavily specialized economies, often relying on industries such as agriculture, mining, and tourism.[ citation needed ] An example of such a specialized town is La Rinconada, Peru, a gold-mining town and the highest elevation human habitation at 5,100 metres (16,700 ft). [38] A counterexample is El Alto, Bolivia, at 4,150 metres (13,620 ft), which has a highly diverse service and manufacturing economy and a population of nearly 1 million. [39]

Traditional mountain societies rely on agriculture, with higher risk of crop failure than at lower elevations. Minerals often occur in mountains, with mining being an important component of the economics of some montane societies. More recently, tourism supports mountain communities, with some intensive development around attractions such as national parks or ski resorts. [10] :17 About 80% of mountain people live below the poverty line. [11]

Most of the world's rivers are fed from mountain sources, with snow acting as a storage mechanism for downstream users. [10] :22 More than half of humanity depends on mountains for water. [40] [41]

In geopolitics mountains are often seen as preferable "natural boundaries" between polities. [42] [43]


Mountaineers climbing in South Tyrol Ortler Ascent - South Tyrol.jpg
Mountaineers climbing in South Tyrol

Mountain climbing, or alpinism is the sport, hobby or profession of hiking, skiing, and climbing mountains. While mountaineering began as attempts to reach the highest point of unclimbed big mountains it has branched into specializations that address different aspects of the mountain and consists of three areas: rock-craft, snow-craft and skiing, depending on whether the route chosen is over rock, snow or ice. All require experience, athletic ability, and technical knowledge of the terrain to maintain safety. [44]

Mountains as sacred places

Mountains often play a significant role in religion. There are for example a number of sacred mountains within Greece such as Mount Olympus which was held to be the home of the gods. [45] In Japanese culture, the 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft) volcano of Mount Fuji is also held to be sacred with tens of thousands of Japanese ascending it each year. [46] Mount Kailash, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, is considered to be sacred in four religions: Hinduism, Bon, Buddhism, and Jainism. In Ireland, pilgrimages are made up the 952 metres (3,123 ft) Mount Brandon by Irish Catholics. [47] The Himalayan peak of Nanda Devi is associated with the Hindu goddesses Nanda and Sunanda; [48] it has been off-limits to climbers since 1983. Mount Ararat is a sacred mountain, as it is believed to be the landing place of Noah's Ark. In Europe and especially in the Alps, summit crosses are often erected on the tops of prominent mountains. [49]


Chimborazo, Ecuador. The point on Earth's surface farthest from its centre. Volcan Chimborazo, "El Taita Chimborazo".jpg
Chimborazo, Ecuador. The point on Earth's surface farthest from its centre.

Heights of mountains are typically measured above sea level. Using this metric, Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth, at 8,848 metres (29,029 ft). [51] There are at least 100 mountains with heights of over 7,200 metres (23,622 ft) above sea level, all of which are located in central and southern Asia. The highest mountains above sea level are generally not the highest above the surrounding terrain. There is no precise definition of surrounding base, but Denali, [52] Mount Kilimanjaro and Nanga Parbat are possible candidates for the tallest mountain on land by this measure. The bases of mountain islands are below sea level, and given this consideration Mauna Kea (4,207 m (13,802 ft) above sea level) is the world's tallest mountain and volcano, rising about 10,203 m (33,474 ft) from the Pacific Ocean floor. [53]

The highest mountains are not generally the most voluminous. Mauna Loa (4,169 m or 13,678 ft) is the largest mountain on Earth in terms of base area (about 2,000 sq mi or 5,200 km2) and volume (about 18,000 cu mi or 75,000 km3). [54] Mount Kilimanjaro is the largest non-shield volcano in terms of both base area (245 sq mi or 635 km2) and volume (1,150 cu mi or 4,793 km3). Mount Logan is the largest non-volcanic mountain in base area (120 sq mi or 311 km2).

The highest mountains above sea level are also not those with peaks farthest from the centre of the Earth, because the figure of the Earth is not spherical. Sea level closer to the equator is several miles farther from the centre of the Earth. The summit of Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest mountain, is usually considered to be the farthest point from the Earth's centre, although the southern summit of Peru's tallest mountain, Huascarán, is another contender. [55] Both have elevations above sea level more than 2 kilometres (6,600 ft) less than that of Everest.

See also

Related Research Articles

Geography of Ecuador

Ecuador is a country in western South America, bordering the Pacific Ocean at the Equator, for which the country is named. Ecuador encompasses a wide range of natural formations and climates, from the desert-like southern coast to the snowcapped peaks of the Andes mountain range to the plains of the Amazon Basin. Cotopaxi in Ecuador is one of the world's highest active volcanos. It also has a large series of rivers that follow the southern border and spill into the northwest area of Peru.

Himalayas Mountain range in Asia

The Himalayas, or Himalaya, are a mountain range in Asia, separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. The range has some of the planet's highest peaks, including the highest, Mount Everest. Over 100 peaks exceeding 7,200 m (23,600 ft) in elevation lie in the Himalayas. By contrast, the highest peak outside Asia is 6,961 m (22,838 ft) tall.

Mount Everest Earths highest mountain, part of the Himalaya between Nepal and Tibet

Mount Everest is Earth's highest mountain above sea level, located in the Mahalangur Himal sub-range of the Himalayas. The China–Nepal border runs across its summit point. Its elevation of 8,848.86 m (29,031.7 ft) was most recently established in 2020 by the Chinese and Nepali authorities.

Altitude or height is a distance measurement, usually in the vertical or "up" direction, between a reference datum and a point or object. The exact definition and reference datum varies according to the context. Although the term altitude is commonly used to mean the height above sea level of a location, in geography the term elevation is often preferred for this usage.

Mount Kilimanjaro Africas highest mountain in Kilimanjaro Region Tanzania

Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano in Tanzania. It has three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. It is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain above sea level in the world: 5,895 metres (19,341 ft) above sea level and about 4,900 metres (16,100 ft) above its plateau base. It is the highest volcano in Africa and the Eastern Hemisphere.

Caucasus Mountains Mountain system at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East

The Caucasus Mountains is a mountain range at the intersection of Asia and Europe. Stretching between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, it is surrounded by the Caucasus region and is home to Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe at 5,642 metres (18,510 ft) above sea level.

Mauna Kea Hawaiian volcano

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaiʻi. Its peak is 4,207.3 m (13,803 ft) above sea level, making it the highest point in the state of Hawaiʻi and second-highest peak of an island on Earth. The peak is about 38 m (125 ft) higher than Mauna Loa, its more massive neighbor. Mauna Kea is unusually topographically prominent for its height: its wet prominence is fifteenth in the world among mountains, at 4,207.3 m (13,803 ft); its dry prominence of 9,330 m (30,610 ft) is second in the world, only after Mount Everest. This dry prominence is taller than Mount Everest's height above sea level of 8,848.86 m (29,032 ft), and some authorities have labelled Mauna Kea the tallest mountain in the world, from its underwater base.

Chimborazo Volcano and highest mountain in Ecuador

Chimborazo is a currently inactive stratovolcano in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes. Its last known eruption is believed to have occurred around 550 A.D.

Alpine climate Typical weather for regions above the tree line

Alpine climate is the typical weather (climate) for the regions above the tree line. This climate is also referred to as a mountain climate or highland climate.

Plateau Area of a highland, usually of relatively flat terrain

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Pico de Orizaba Volcano in Mexico

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Goat Rocks Stratovolcano in United States of America

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Ojos del Salado Highest volcano in the world

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Effects of high altitude on humans Scientific phenomenon

The effects of high altitude on humans are considerable. The oxygen saturation of hemoglobin determines the content of oxygen in blood. After the human body reaches around 2,100 metres (6,900 ft) above sea level, the saturation of oxyhemoglobin begins to decrease rapidly. However, the human body has both short-term and long-term adaptations to altitude that allow it to partially compensate for the lack of oxygen. There is a limit to the level of adaptation; mountaineers refer to the altitudes above 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) as the death zone, where it is generally believed that no human body can acclimatize.

Gaspésie National Park Canadian provincial park in Quebec

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