The Great Lakes: Gateway to American Expansion

Intrepid explorers from every colonizing country in North America pushed ever westward in search of routes into the rest of the wild country awaiting them.

Moving west from what became the state of New York and the Canadian province of Ontario, French explorers were the first to find what became known as the Great Lakes.

This natural treasure played a central role in the European colonization of the United States and Canada and became a dominant part of the physical and cultural heritage of North America.

Just the Facts

Formed and filled as the last North American glacier — the Wisconsin Glacial Stage — melted and receded some 14,000 years ago, the Great Lakes encompasses five individual lakes near the northeastern border of the United States and Canada. From east to west, they are:

Together, these lakes represent the largest body of freshwater on the surface of the planet. In fact, the Great Lakes account for one-fifth of the global surface freshwater and 84% of North America’s. This amounts to roughly 6 quadrillion gallons of freshwater.

The lakes are dotted with over 35,000 islands. Several are small and uninhabitable, while one, Manitoulin, is the largest island in an inland body of water in the world. Lake Superior is easily the deepest, with depths maxing out at 1,333 feet. Lakes Huron, Michigan and Ontario have depths between 750 and 925 feet, while Lake Erie is considerably more shallow at just 210 feet. 

The Great Lakes Basin

These waterways provided transportation, enterprise and food for early peoples, and the possibilities for science, industry and recreation continued to attract people through the years. The basin includes more than 30 million residents in areas in the Canadian province of Ontario and the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, New York and Ohio. The Great Lakes border nearly 7% of American farm production and 25% of Canadian.

Historical and Cultural Significance

As the first gateway to the West, the Great Lakes played an enormous part in the history of the United States. For the indigenous people who called their shores home for centuries, the lakes represented more than bodies of water; they were the essence of life as they knew it. The cultural impact of these lakes and the area’s earliest inhabitants colors every community within the Great Lakes Basin. Each lake has some cultural relevance or historical footnote as well.

Lake Superior was the site of one of the last and most famous shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a storm with all 29 crew members aboard. Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song that memorialized this wreak.

Lake Michigan honors those who lost their lives to shipwrecks on its waters with the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve. Here, divers can explore the 12 sunken ships and pay homage to those who went before them.

The Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812 was fought off its north shore in September 1813. The U.S. navy beat the British to reclaim Detroit.

Lake Huron has long been a popular summer recreational spot, and Lake Ontario has a long history as a center of commerce before railroads took over the landscape.

Today, the Great Lakes are central to the $5 trillion regional economies that they support. Recreation opportunities that include world-renown fishing, hunting and boating help to generate over $52 billion for the area each year.

As well as providing unmistakable beauty and recreational pleasure, these lakes are critical to the economy, culture and environment of the communities within the Great Lakes Basin and beyond.

Kilauea Volcano

Kilauea is one of the planet’s most active volcanoes, and it’s the youngest — about 600,000 years old — of five volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Along with nearby Mauna Kea, Kilauea is still adding to the island’s topography, and its unique character, geologic importance and dramatic history only increase its allure.

Kilauea Geological and Geographical Details

Situated at the southeastern edge of a curving volcanic band, Kilauea was once believed to be a satellite of Mauna Kea, its much larger neighbor. However, geologists have determined that Kilauea’s magma vent and conduit system is completely separate. Known as a shield volcano of basalt composition, Kilauea has erupted in alternating cycles that are either explosive — dominated by tephra — or effusive — dominated by lava flow — for the past 2,500 years.

At its highest point, Kilauea is 4,190 feet above sea level. Measuring 1.86 miles in length by 3.11 miles in width, the caldera’s summit is 541 feet deep. Kilauea comprises 564 square miles, which is about 14% of the island’s land area.

How to Get There

The nearest airport is in Hilo, Hawaii, while the city closest to the Kilauea volcano is Kalapana.

Volcanic Eruptions

Kīlauea pele erupting at night filling the sky with fire and smoke

According to geologists, 90% of Kilauea’s surface is covered by lava flows that are less than 1,000 years old, while about 20% of those flows are younger than 200 years. Meanwhile, researchers say that the oldest above-sea-level lava flows, located at the central part of the volcano’s south flank, date to between 210,000 and 280,000 years ago when they first erupted onto the floor of the ocean.

Throughout its history, Kilauea has rained destruction on the nearby settlements and towns, killing thousands.

  • Pyroclastic surges rained down Kilauea’s western summit area in a series of violent volcanic explosions in 1790. This was considered the deadliest eruption at that time, with human deaths estimated at more than 400 to perhaps thousands.
  • In 1924, on the floor of Kilauea’s summit caldera and within the Halemaumau crater, an explosive volcanic eruption occurred that hurled dense, multiton rocks more than half a mile from the crater.
  • In 1990, Kilauea’s current eruption period began with lava flooding the nearby village of Kalapana, destroying in excess of 900 homes during a nine-month period.
  • Since the start of the most recent long-duration eruptions in 1983, continuing through 2018, Kilauea has produced a cubic mile of lava and reshaped 48 square miles of land.
  • After the April 2018 eruption, the crater’s deepest portion is now some 938 feet beneath its previous floor.

Both Kilauea and Mauna Kea are currently ranked by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program at a very high threat potential.

Why is Kilauea Historically Significant?

Hawaiian legend is rich with accounts of Pele, revered as the goddess of lightning, fire, volcanoes and wind, who makes her home in the Halema’umu’u crater of Kilauea. Indeed, the profuse volcanic eruptions Kilauea produces are said to be the work of the angry goddess. The name Kilauea essentially means great spreading and spewing in Hawaiian, no doubt a reference to the frequent flows of lava during the volcano’s eruptions.

Much of Kilauea’s research takes place at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which was founded by Thomas Jagger in 1912 and is located at the volcano’s rim. President Woodrow Wilson created the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1916, and Kilauea was later designated a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

In 1823, when a European missionary, Rev. William Ellis, viewed the summit, Kilauea had already been erupting for hundreds of thousands of years. This phenomenon shows no signs of abating, making the Kilauea volcano a much-monitored world hotspot that will continue to pose significant threats to the island’s people and property. 

What is a Batholith?

Molten lava roils and bubbles deep inside our planet.

Surging upward into the cracks and crevices throughout the lowest levels of the earth’s crust, pools of slowly cooling magma form and settle before reaching the surface.

When cooled, they create a large body of igneous rock. Comprised of coarse-grained granite, when these plutons are 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) or more, they become a batholith. 

The word batholith comes from the Greek word bath and the suffix -lith, which means deep rock. It’s the perfect name for these subterranean monoliths.

How They’re Formed

miles of sandy colored mountains, Ladakh batholith

The majority of these massive rocks form deep inside mountain folds that have endured faulting. These cracks and crevices create the perfect places for the magma that becomes a batholith to slip in and form new structures once it cools.

Batholiths are never made up of a single structure — they’re too huge. These colossal formations are made up of multiple plutons blended into a dome shape that remains hidden beneath the surface of the planet. Over time, the erosion of that overlaying layer exposes the batholith for all to see.

Once it’s exposed, the difference in pressure and the influence of weather removes layers with rough edges and sharp corners. The resulting rock surface is clean and rounded. This uniquely shaped structure is visible for miles.

Size & Depth

Batholiths are a minimum of 40 square miles in size. Beyond that, their size, depth and shape vary greatly depending on the factors that influenced them during their creation and emergence. Some remain smooth and rounded for years to come, others become jagged peaks. Some of these extend more than 1,000 miles.

While it was once believed that these intrusive igneous rock structures extended to unknown depths, studies conducted around 2013 proved that this may not be true. Many of these studies indicated that batholiths could be no more than 6 to 9 miles (10 to 15 km) deep.

The Significance of Batholith to Geology and Humanity

According to the United States Geological Survey conducted by the Department of the Interior, the study of batholiths is important for understanding the ecology and mineral resources of the area as well as the inherent natural hazards. For the first two areas, the feldspar and quartz composition that is nearly always present in batholiths is a treasure trove for research. Studying the damage done by the significant internal stress batholiths are subjected to can help areas prepare for earthquakes and landslides.

Sierra Nevada Range

Half Dome at sunset behind trees and a lake

The most well-known batholith is at the core of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was exposed as the mountains rose eroding the material that had covered the monstrosity for millions of years. The exposed peaks of this batholith became the jagged granite peaks of High Sierra.

The Sierra Nevada range is the largest mountain range in the contiguous United States. Furthermore, the Sierra Nevada summit Mount Whitney is the tallest peak. Other mountains within the Sierra Nevadas that are part of the batholith include Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park

a colorful sky over mountains and trees, Yosemite National Park

In 1890, Yosemite National Park was established covering nearly 1,200 square miles, including portions of the Sierra Nevada range. El Capitan and Half Dome are part of that section. Today, thousands of people from all over the world visit Yosemite. During those visits, people traverse areas of the Sierra Nevada batholith containing rocks that could be more than 450 million years old.

California Gold Rush

The Sierra Nevada mountains witnessed the dawning of the California Gold Rush as hopeful miners with dreams of striking it rich rushed to its mineral-rich foothills in the early middle of the 19th century. The rush began in January of 1848 when the first gold flakes were found in American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, California. Soon, communities in the area were inundated by more than 4,000 of these miners. This changed the communities and California forever.

Batholiths Around the World

In addition to the Sierra Nevada range, there are lesser-known batholiths around the world. These outcroppings range in size and age with many of them containing peaks and summits that are better known than the batholith itself. In fact, most people don’t even know that the batholith exists. Regardless, the world’s batholiths include:

  • Egypt: Aswan Granite batholith
  • Ghana: Cape Coast batholith
  • South Africa: Darling batholith
  • Uganda: Mubende batholith
  • Antarctica: Antarctic Peninsula and Queen Maud batholiths
  • Siberia: Angara-Vitim batholith
  • India: Bhongir Fort batholith and Mount Abu
  • Himalaya: Gangdese, Karakorum and Trans-Himalayan batholiths
  • Kazakhstan: Kalba-Narym batholith
  • Thailand: Tak batholith
  • Central Asia: Tien Shan batholith
  • England: Cornubian and North Pennine batholiths
  • Ireland: Donegal and Leinster Boulder batholith
  • France: Mancellian batholith
  • Norway: Sunnhordaland and Bindal batholiths
  • Australia: Cullen, Kosciuszko, Moruya and New England batholiths
  • New Zealand: Median batholith
  • Argentina: Achala and Cerro Aspero batholiths
  • Peru: Coastal and Cordillera Blanca batholiths

North America

Mountains with depressions and different formations

This continent has a number of batholiths, which is likely due to a large number of tectonic plates that surround North America. Scientists believe these plates play a large part in not only the formation of batholiths but their emergence as well. North American batholiths include:

  • Bald Rock batholith
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Chambers-Strathy batholith
  • Boulder batholith
  • Town Mountain Granite batholith
  • Golden Horn batholith
  • Idaho batholith
  • Ruby Mountains
  • Stone Mountain
  • Wyoming batholith
  • Pike’s Peak Granite batholith
  • Kenosha batholith
  • Rio Verde batholith

Batholiths shape and reshape the landscapes of the world. These enormous intrusive rocks create some of the most beautiful vistas in nature. Like the Sierra Nevada range, they have a long history that changed the course of the people who live around them.

Rio Grande: The River of Two Names

Historically, the Rio Grande might be one of the most important rivers in terms of the formation of the United States.

Today, it forms the border between the United States and Mexico, but in the 1830s, it flowed through three nations: the U.S., Mexico and what was then the independent Republic of Texas.

While Texas never actually controlled the Rio Grande as an independent republic, the river was an important part of its annexation by the United States, as Texas’ claim on the river was one step in the Lone Star State’s joining the Union.

What Other Names Does the Rio Grande Have?

Venture south of the river, and you won’t hear it referred to as the Rio Grande. Instead, Mexicans refer to it as the Rio Bravo, which translates to the furious river. If you’ve ever taken a look at the Rio Grande, the Mexican name makes perfect sense. The river is full of rapids and rocky terrain, making it impossible to navigate, and in recent years, it has seen its water supply dwindle, which compounds the situation. The Rio Grande is as deep as 59 feet in some spots, but in other areas, especially near major cities like Albuquerque, it has found itself running dry.

Why Is The Rio Grande So Important?

 Rio Grande River among the flat lands in Texas near the border of Mexico

Following its history with Texas and the Mexican-American War, the Rio Grande has played a major role in relations between the United States and Mexico. In the early 20th century, the Rio Grande was the source of a major dispute because of the area known as the Chamizal, a square mile of land that formed when heavy rains shifted the Rio Grande slightly to the south, resulting in land that was once part of Mexico shifting to the Texas side of the river.

The nations spent 60 years locked in a bitter dispute over the land, a completely unusable portion of farmland that had nonetheless become the home of several Texans. In the 1960s, however, the United States officially ceded the land back to Mexico, and the two nations worked to construct a concrete channel to force the Rio Grande back onto its original path.

In recent years, the river has served as another point of contention as the border situation between the United States and Mexico has worsened. Attempts to build a wall on the border between the two countries have been blocked by the river, as a 1970 treaty prevents either nation from building anything that obstructs the flow of the Rio Grande.

What Problems Has the Rio Grande Faced?

Like many rivers in the 20th century, the Rio Grande has endured more than its share of pollution. Mexico and the United States have attempted to clean it in the 21st century, but the effects of dumping sewage into it during previous decades are obvious. In 2018, it was named one of the most endangered rivers in the United States, marking a major problem for New Mexico and Colorado when the river turns north from the Mexican border.

What the Rio Grande’s future holds depends on whether the Southwestern United States and Mexico can cooperate to keep the river flowing properly. Without it, water issues could become a major problem for the Western United States in the not-too-distant future.

The Zambezi River

The magnificent Zambezi River has yet to be completely explored.

To the communities around it and the people who visit, this spectacle of nature is majestic and spiritual.

Why the Zambezi Is Famous

About 32 million people inhabit the Zambezi River basin. The population in the river’s upper course practice agriculture extensively, and many sport and commercial fisheries operate on the Zambezi River. Besides fishing, the Zambezi tourism industry continues to thrive as the river attracts many people who come for, among other things, the numerous exotic fish species in the river.

The Zambezi River Valley has rich reserves of fossil fuels and minerals, as well as coal mines. The river is also home to the Cahora Bassa and Kariba Dams, two of the largest hydroelectric power projects on the continent. Still, these feats of human engineering pale in comparison to the grandeur of the captivating Victoria Falls. Even though the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi’s numerous rapids make extensive navigation impossible, there’s still some water traffic along the river’s short, uninterrupted stretches.

Geographical Details of the Zambezi

Over head view of the Victoria falls on Zambezi river

The Zambezi, along with its tributaries, is the fourth-largest river in Africa and is the longest river flowing east. It drains a vast area (more than 500,000 square miles or 1.3 million square kilometers) of south-central Africa.

The distance from the Zambezi’s source on the Central African Plateau to the Indian Ocean, into which the river empties, is roughly 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers), and the river spans six countries: Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The upper course of the Zambezi starts from a marshy bog 4,800 feet above sea level in Zambia and ends at the Victoria Falls. Here, it starts its middle course, extending 600 miles (965 kilometers) from Victoria Falls to Lake Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. The Zambezi’s lower course descends the Central African Plateau down to the coastal plain, where it empties up to 247,000 cubic feet (7,000 cubic meters) per second into the Indian Ocean via two channels.

The Zambezi River Basin has a tropical climate. Savannah vegetation prevails in the basin’s upper and middle portion, whereas mangrove swamps and evergreen forests dominate the river’s lower course. The Zambezi River Basin is home to a wide variety of terrestrial (mammalian predators, game species and other mammals), aerial ( such as herons, wattled cranes and African fish eagles) and aquatic (crocodiles and hippopotami) animal species.

Historical Significance of the Zambezi

From the 10th century, Arab traders were the first non-Africans to traverse the Zambezi using its lower reaches. The Portuguese followed in the 16th century hoping to use the river to enhance trade in slaves, gold and ivory.

Until the 19th century, little was known about the river, then called the Zanbere. Accurate mapping of the river began with David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer, who charted a large portion of the Zambezi’s course in the 1850s. Until further surveys in the 20th century traced the source of the Zambezi, his map of the river was the most accurate.

How to Get to the Zambezi

You can access the Zambezi River from multiple points in Zambia or the other countries through which the river flows. Major airports near the Zambezi in Zambia include Solwezi Airport and Lubumbashi International Airport. Once in the country, you can reach the access points to the Zambezi via bus services, car rentals or trains.

The Zambezi is one of the few remaining rivers in the world with unexplored reaches, evoking excitement and mystery.

Meteor Crater Natural Landmark

Along the south edge of the Colorado Plateau’s deep canyons, volcanic mountains and vast buttes lies the Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, a massive meteorite impact site that formed 50,000 years ago.

For centuries, the site was the subject of great debate among geologists.

Quick Facts About Meteor Crater

While the Meteor Crater Natural Landmark may not be the largest crater on earth, it’s certainly sizable, and thanks to the arid desert climate in Arizona, the crater is one of the best-preserved in North America.

  • The meteor that formed the crater had a diameter of approximately 150 feet
  • The original size of the crater was more than 4,000 feet across and 700 feet deep
  • Meteor Crater has reduced in size due to natural erosion; it’s now approximately 3,900 feet across and 560 feet deep

Historical Significance of Meteor Crater

Before Meteor Crater was proven to be a meteorite impact site, the area was known by the name Coon Butte. The name Meteor Crater, or Barringer Crater, as it’s sometimes called, was earned in the early 1900s when geologist Daniel Barringer theorized that it was formed by a meteorite. He claimed that iron from the meteorite would be found beneath the crater’s surface. In 1903, Barringer and a team of miners dug beneath the crater’s surface in search of that iron to prove his theory. His mining efforts failed when all that was discovered was rock and water. Regardless, Barringer was persistent in touting his hypothesis, and although some scientists stood behind him, the science community, in general, was skeptical.

Before Barringer’s theories about the crater were mainstream, Grove Karl Gilbert, another geologist, tested the theory that the crater could have been formed by a meteorite colliding with Earth, as well as the theory that it could have been the result of volcanic activity below Earth’s surface. The result of his tests incorrectly found the latter to be true.

Proving Barringer’s Theory

overhead view of the Barringer crater

Ultimately, proving Barringer’s theory came down to the presence of certain rocks and minerals in and around the crater. Although iron wasn’t present below the surface, as Baringer had hypothesized, what was later found in and around the crater provided conclusive evidence that his theory was, in fact, correct.

In 1960, Eugene Merle Shoemaker, a Ph.D student, discovered the presence of coesite and stishovite in the area, which are rare forms of silica formed when quartz is under high pressure and moderate to high temperatures, such as when struck by a meteorite. This finding proved Barringer’s theory right.

Further evidence of a meteorite impact has been discovered in geologic samples of the area in the years since. These samples included pulverized rock, along with sandstone and limestone, that was littered throughout the surrounding area. Additionally, fragments of the meteorite itself along with metallic spherules and shock-melted sandstone and limestone have been discovered in the crater’s ejecta blanket. These discoveries have aided advances in science and helped geologists to recognize other meteorite impact sites on earth and throughout the solar system.

Meteor Crater in the Movies

America’s fascination with outer space and meteors crashing into our planet have lead Hollywood to Meteor Crater a couple of times. In the film Damnation Alley (1977), which portrays a group of nuclear assault survivors searching for civilization, several scenes are filmed at the site. In the 1985 film Star Man, the plot focuses on an alien who’s trying to return to his home planet. In the film, he has to go to Meteor Crater to board his spaceship.

Visiting Meteor Crater

International travelers can fly into the area via the Flagstaff Airport, which offers connecting flights with international airports in several surrounding cities.

Meteor Crater is a magnificent geological site. It’s the first crater proven to be caused by a meteorite impact, and it’s one of the most well-preserved craters in the world.

Indus River: Cradle of Civilizations

With a murmur and a roar, the Indus River makes its way through areas as turbulent as its shimmering waters.

One of the longest rivers in the world, its waters brought life and industry to many civilizations along its long and winding banks. Even great conquerors were both driven and shaken by its might and majesty.

The Fine Details

From the northern slopes of the Kailash Mountain Range in the Tibetan plateau of China at roughly 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) of elevation to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, the Indus River and its many tributaries fed numerous civilizations throughout Pakistan and India. The approximately 2,000-mile-long river traditionally has double the flow of the larger Nile River in Africa and nearly three times that of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers combined.

Near Tatta Pani in Azad Kashmir, the Indus branches out into a multitude of distributaries that form its fertile delta. Covering more than 3,000 square miles with 130 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal, this delta is one of the most significant habitats in the world.

The People of the Indus River

Millions of people have lived and thrived along the Indus River. They were as separated by faith, race and language as they were by the wild waters of the river.

In the Pothohar Plateau of Punjab, explorers found Paleolithic sites with stone tools. In ancient Gandhara, evidence of cave-dwelling people from 15,000 years in the past turned up. However, the best known and largest group of people to grow from the Indus River is undoubtedly the civilization that bears its name.

The Indus River Valley & Its Civilization

 a vibrant look at the Indus river and valley

The fertile waters of the Indus River touched the lives of many people and even gave birth to a civilization all of its own. The Indus River Valley Civilization (IRVC) — or simply Indus Valley Civilization depending upon who you ask — thrived along the lower Indus River in what is now northeast Pakistan and northwestern India. Their civilization lasted roughly from 3300 BC to 1300 BC and has also been known as the Harappan Civilization of the Indus Valley due to the earliest artifacts being found in the ancient city of Harappa. This city was one of the first archeological excavation sites in the area.

This highly agricultural society is often considered to be one of the great early civilizations, alongside Sumer and Egypt. Archeological evidence shows that they were an urban culture, meaning that they organized into large cities, with an advanced culture involving sculpture, music and religion. Many of the roots of Hinduism and Indian culture can be traced back to this civilization.

Legacy of the IRVC

The IRVC is known to have experimented with metallurgy. Examples involving tin, lead, bronze and copper were found among the relics. A standardized system of weights and measures is another innovation that this ancient society left behind.

They also invented a system of writing. Many linguists believe that this language may have developed into Vedic Sanskrit, often referred to as the mother of all languages. However, there are near as many who disagree with this assertion.

Many theories abound as to why this once great nation abandoned its cities and moved away from the river that gave it life. One of the most prevalent themes is that the people migrated elsewhere when the Indus River changed its course. While it’s a historic fact that the course change occurred, the reason for the Indus River Valley Civilization’s downfall is still a matter of debate.

Agricultural Powerhouse

Indus river in the Himalayas
The turquoise Indus river near Saspul in the Indian Himalaya in autumn. Ladakh, India

The Indus River system — the river, its many tributaries and the delta — feed the agricultural needs of the entire Indus River Valley that surrounds it. This includes large parts of Pakistan and India, two areas with booming populations and rapidly growing food and water shortages. The rich waters of the river feed flora and fauna in the plateaus, temperate forests and dry rural areas of Pakistan almost exclusively.

The Indus River system is vital to the Pakistani economy and agricultural industry in particular as it is the country’s major freshwater resource. This is especially true in the Punjab province, where the majority of Pakistan’s agricultural production occurs. Approximately 90% of the country’s agriculture depends on the Indus River.

Recent years have seen an increase in the rate of deforestation and the human destruction of the ecosystem has caused a noticeable decline in the quality and production rate of farmland and foliage in general along the Indus River. This has led to the majority of cultivation requiring irrigation.

Nearly 30% of the world’s cotton comes from India and Pakistan, with the vast majority coming directly from the Indus River regions. This level of production requires that an average of 137 billion gallons of water be taken out of the Indus River.

Hydroelectric projects and irrigation are rapidly draining the flow of the Indus River while the glaciers that feed it in Kashmir are melting away faster than they can reform. The Indus is a critical source of drinking water, hydroelectric power, and much more throughout both Pakistan and India. The fragile balance needed for the growingly limited water resources in the area is igniting barely dormant political tensions in an area that has a long history of unrest.

Popular Culture

While the Indus River has not made a splash in the worlds of movies, television, music or art, it’s undoubtedly in the background of many Bollywood films. Bollywood is the colloquial term for the Indian film industry, which sets nearly every movie in the subcontinent.

The 2016 action-adventure film Mohenjo Daro is set in the Indus River Valley. The river itself figures prominently in this film set amid the ancient Indus River Valley Civilization. It has drawn many critics for what is seen as a highly sensationalized and inaccurate representation of that civilization.

The Indus River helped to build civilizations and is one of the catalysts in the war between two others. It has long been the seat of unrest with conquerors crossing its waters to reach their next battle. Today, it continues to play a vital role in Pakistani and Indian society as well as the ecological future of the planet as a whole.

Tigris River: Cradle of Civilization

Without the Tigris River, civilization as we know it might never have existed.

The Tigris, along with its neighbor the Euphrates River, helped to form the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, Greek for between the rivers. Because the two rivers provided water to the region, future inventions, such as aqueducts, were unnecessary for irrigation, allowing civilization to thrive.

These days, the Tigris River flows through modern-day Iraq, passing through part of Syria and Turkey as well. However, the river isn’t nearly as strong as it once was, and this reality has a region fearing for what is to come in the future.

What Civilizations Used the Tigris River?

The Tigris River formed the basis for several civilizations, starting around 4500 B.C. with the Sumerians, who were the first real civilization to establish a long-term presence in human history

The reason the Sumerians succeeded where others failed was irrigation from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Irrigation proved vital to the region because the land nearest the rivers was quite fertile, but the land farthest was initially inhospitable to the crops necessary for a thriving civilization.

Other civilizations to use the Tigris included the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who constructed several canals to take further advantage of the river’s resources.

Where Does the Tigris River’s Water Come From?

Due to its arid location, the Tigris receives most of its waters not from rain in Iraq, as would be expected, but from snow in the mountains of Turkey. Long before the presence of dams in Turkey and Syria, the waters of the Tigris would regularly exceed sea level in the spring because of melting snow coming from the Turkish mountains and sending the Tigris over its river banks.

The dams of the Tigris have changed its path over time. Geological evidence suggests that the Tigris has followed three different courses during its history, with most of them dated between 4000 B.C. and 1258 A.D., when the modern course of the river was formed. Both irrigation and dams have played a large role in the Tigris’ route changing, with the latter playing a large role in its modern problems.

Why is the Tigris River in Trouble?

The problems for the Tigris can be traced to the problems of the country that hosts most of its territory: Iraq. The Middle Eastern nation has been one of the most war-torn places in the world over the past 50 years, and war has sapped the Tigris of much of the water that helped the Sumerians and the Babylonians flourish.

The Tigris also faces problems because of the region’s oil. As the world became more modern and cars became the dominant form of transportation, oil commanded high dollars for the Middle East, but its sale included a high price of its own: pollution of the waters that had long sustained life in the area and dwindling waters to the region.

The countries where the Tigris flows have seen escalated tensions over their ability to get water from the Tigris. Iraq itself gets more than 70% of its water from rivers that it shares with other nations, including the Tigris and Euphrates.

What Does the Future Hold?

The Tigris faces some of the same problems that many of the world’s great rivers have faced since the Industrial Revolution, and whether it can be saved depends on how well its nations work together to clean up the river. If they can put aside their differences and cut back on pollution from plastic and other sources, the Tigris River could easily become great again.

The Euphrates: Once Fruitful

Go back to ancient times, and the original name of the Euphrates River makes complete sense.

In the original Greek and Hebrew, Euphrates means that which makes fruitful. Along with the Tigris River, the Euphrates did exactly that for ancient Mesopotamia, as irrigation from the river allowed the first city-states in history to form.

Unfortunately, the Euphrates isn’t what it once was. Issues between the three countries it flows through, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, have sapped it of its former greatness and left the river in peril in the 21st century.

How Long and Deep is The Euphrates?

When all is well, the Euphrates flows for 1,740 miles, starting in Turkey before flowing through Syria and Iraq on its way toward the Persian Gulf. The river can be as wide as about one-third of a mile and 30 to 147 feet deep in some areas. It’s formed by the joining of two rivers, the Karasu and Murat, which exist in the Armenian Highlands.

Why Is the Euphrates Important?

What made the Euphrates such a vital river was the fact that its waters made the land known as Mesopotamia fruitful. The Mesopotamians developed irrigation and brought the water from the Euphrates toward the land, allowing civilization to develop around the region’s farmland. Further success in the area came when the Assyrians and the Babylonians settled the land.

How Far is the Euphrates From the Tigris River?

It’s virtually impossible to discuss the Euphrates without bringing up its partner, the Tigris River. The two rivers are a mere 30 miles apart in some spots.

Why is the Euphrates Drying Up?

River Euphrates in Kemaliye location with the Recep Yazicioglu bridge

Three nations using the river as their main source of water has led to the Euphrates losing a great deal of its volume. Both Turkey and Syria have constructed dams to take water out of the Euphrates, which has left far less in the remainder of the river for Iraq.

The Middle East is also a drought-prone region, and its arid climate has prevented the Euphrates from receiving enough rain water to replenish what the area’s population takes out of it. With a mere 24 inches of rain falling per year in some spots, the river has had little chance to recover from human usage.

Mining also hurt the Euphrates in the past, as the site was once mined for minerals such as silver, lead and zinc. However, mining was abandoned in the late 1980’s, shortly before the Gulf War plunged the region into complete instability.

How Has Pollution Hurt the Euphrates?

The Middle East has been drilled for oil extensively in the past half-century as cars have become the dominant mode of transportation throughout the world. Unfortunately for the Euphrates, the oil-rich area means that the Middle East often ends up quite poor in terms of water. Not only has oil meant an increase in pollution, but the area is one of the most war-torn in the world, which has lead to the health of the river falling by the wayside.

How Many People Rely on the Euphrates?

The Euphrates River basin serves 23 million people, which has made the pollution problems and lack of water in the river a serious issue for the Middle East.

While the Euphrates was once one of the world’s great rivers that helped create civilization as we know it, the sad fact is that the river is in grave peril unless its nations can come together for a solution. The Euphrates might have given birth to civilization, but without serious action in the immediate future, civilization might be what causes its downfall.

Tibetan Plateau

Towering at an average elevation of 4,500 feet, the Tibetan Plateau’s expansive landscape is the highest flatland in the world.

The geological marvel is often referred to as the roof of the world for its vast and sky-high countryside. The plateau is in good high-elevation company, bordered by mountain ranges that are home to Mount Everest and Mount Godwin-Austen (K2), the two highest peaks in the world.

Where to Find the Tibetan Plateau

Located to the southwest of China, the Plateau of Tibet stretches to connect the Kunlun Mountains to the north, the Himalayas to the south and the Karakoram mountain range to the southwest. The Tibetan Plateau is also a bridge to diverse ecosystems, including the deserts of the Tarim and Qaidam basins, lowlands and thickly forested valleys. Overall, the landmass is approximately half the size of the contiguous United States.

A Landscape of Glacial Importance

The Tibetan Plateau is a landscape of contrasts — from flat valleys to craggy mountains and lush forests to arid desert. The flatland is also distinct for its glaciers. Tibet’s monumental glaciers account for the largest concentration of ice outside of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. These icy giants produce waters that flow into Asia’s largest waterways, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Ganges rivers. The water that rolls from these massive glaciers sustains more than 2 billion people. 

Life on the Tibetan Plateau

Yak with blankets on its back standing in front of a lake with snow covered mountains in the background, Tibet

Such sky-high elevations have isolated the Tibetan population from surrounding communities. For centuries, many Tibetans lived as nomads, traversing the land and raising livestock such as yaks to sustain their way of life. The vast majority of Tibetan nomads follow the religious practices of Tibetan Buddhism, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. A study of the genetic descendants of Tibetan nomads found that Tibetans living at high altitudes had a different genome than people living closer to sea level. The EPAS1 gene found in Tibetans regulates hemoglobin levels in the blood to make high-elevation life possible without sickness.

The Collision That Formed the Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau is the result of the buckling of the Earth’s crust. Specifically, the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate made contact 50 million years ago, and compressional forces elevated the Tibetan Plateau and the surrounding mountain ranges. The Indian Continental Plate continues to push northward into the Eurasian Plate, resulting in earthquakes and changes in elevation for the Tibetan Plateau. Tectonic models developed by geologists show that the Tibetan Plateau’s elevation has risen nearly 2 miles in the past 10 million years.

Culture Clash: China Invades the Tibetan Plateau

Despite Tibet’s established independence from China in 1913, numerous clashes, military uprisings and invasions have taken place on the Tibetan Plateau. Beijing and the Chinese government continue to lay claim to the land and aspects of Tibet’s cultural government. In 1960, a report by the International Commission of Jurists accused China of crimes of genocide in Tibet and violation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, as the Dalai Lama lives into his 80s, China claims to have the right to appoint the next Tibetan spiritual leader, while the Dalai Lama maintains that he will choose his Buddhist reincarnate.

The remote flatlands of the Tibetan Plateau are complicated. Beneath the plateau, the Earth’s crust quakes from colliding tectonic plates. Above ground, an invading government imposes control over the people. While roiling in conflict, the Tibetan Plateau remains one of the most geologically astounding landscapes on the planet.