A mountain is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain in a limited area. A mountain is generally much higher and steeper than a hill, but there is considerable overlap, and usage often depends on local custom. Some authorities define a mountain as a peak with a topographic prominence over an arbitrary value: for example, the Encyclopędia Britannica requires a prominence of 2,000 feet (610 m).
A mountain is usually produced by the movement of lithospheric plates, either orogenic movement or epeirogenic movement . The compressional forces, isostatic uplift and intrusion of igneous matter forces surface rock upwards, 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. The absolute heights of features termed mountains and hills vary greatly according to an area's topography. The major mountains tend to occur in long linear arcs, indicating tectonic plate boundaries and activity. Mountain creation tends to occur in discrete periods, referred to as orogenies (orogeny). Two types of mountain are formed depending on how the rock reacts to the tectonic forces – block mountains or fold mountains.
Some isolated mountains were produced by volcanoes, including many apparently small islands that reach a great height above the ocean floor.
Block mountains are created when large areas are widely broken up by faults creating large vertical displacements. 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, the Vosges, the Basin and Range province of Western North America and the Rhine valley.
Where rock does not fault it folds, 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 Jura mountains are an example of folding. Over time, erosion can bring about an inversion of relief: the soft upthrust rock is worn away so the anticlines are actually lower than the tougher rock of the synclines.
Heights of mountains are generally given as heights above mean sea level. The highest mountain on Earth is Everest, 8850 m, set in the world's most significant mountain range, the Himalaya. Other definitions of height are possible. The peak that is farthest from the centre of the Earth is Chimborazo in Ecuador. At 6,272 m above sea level it is not even the tallest peak in the Andes, but because the Earth bulges at the equator and Chimborazo is very close to the equator, it is 2,150 m further away from the Earth's centre than Everest. The peak that rises farthest from its base is Mauna Kea on Hawaii, whose peak is over 9,000 m above its base on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
The tallest known mountain in the solar system is Olympus Mons, located on Mars.
Sufficiently tall mountains have very different climatic conditions at the top than at the base, and will thus have different life zones at different altitudes on their slopes. The plants and animals of a zone are somewhat isolated when the zones above and below are inhospitable, and many unique species occur on mountainsides as a result. Extreme cases are known as sky islands.
Mountains are not generally favored for human habitation; the weather is harsher, less food is available, and there is little level ground suitable for farming. Most mountains of the world have been left in their natural state, and are today primarily used for recreation. Some mountains are very difficult to climb, and offer spectacular views. Some people therefore enjoy the sport of mountaineering. Mountains are also the site for the sport of downhill skiing. People engaging in these activities often stay at mountain resorts built for the purpose.
Last updated: 10-17-2005 01:04:43