This book, The Physical Geography of North America, is a contribution to the Oxford Regional Environments series being published by Oxford University Press. The series involves a finite number of volumes devoted to major regions of the world. Each volume presents a detailed and current statement of knowledge written by specialists in the many research fields of physical geography. With this book, we aspire to fill a void in recent scientific literature, namely, the lack of high-quality interpretive and correlative work that seeks to integrate across the environmental spectrum.
By convention, the land mass of the Western Hemisphere is often separated at the isthmus of Panama into two continents, North America and South America. For the purposes of this series, however, three principal divisions are recognized, with Mesoamerica interposed between the two larger masses. North America is defined here in terms of the extratropical landscapes that reach from the Tropic of Cancer northward to the Arctic Ocean. North America thus defined reflects both the continent's tectonic nucleus and its present, mostly temperate, climatic and biogeographic character. In contrast, Mesoamerica, though much smaller in area, contains distinctively humid tropical landscapes superposed onto a mostly recent tectonic framework. Human impacts on these environments also differ.
This book contains 25 chapters that are broadly divided into three groups: systematic, regional, and human impacts. The first twelve chapters focus systematically on the broad physical and biogeographic character of North America. Of these, chapters 1–4 examine landscape evolution from earliest times to the rich legacy of Pleistocene and Holocene events, whereas chapters 5–12 explain the contemporary landscape in terms of climate, water, soils, plants, and animals, culminating in a perspective on North America's ecoregions.
Chapters 13–21 examine some of the continent's more distinctive regions. Rather than use one criterion, these regions are distinguished in terms of a special attribute that produces a distinctive landscape. The presence of permafrost, boreal forest, two prominent cordilleras, midcontinent plains and lakes, persistent or seasonal aridity, and coasts are such attributes. Despite some overlap, for example, among boreal forest, cordilleras, and permafrost, these are undeniably distinctive regions that any student of North American environments must surely recognize.