The Great Plains are vast flat areas that stretch across North America from Mexico to Canada. It is a geographic region that includes much of the Midwest and Central regions of the United States.
The Great Plains, located in the heart of the United States, are known for badlands – rugged hilly areas with many ravines – and, at the same time, deadly tornadoes. Destructive tornadoes are the scourge of the Plains states. The tornado pictured here formed in North Dakota in 2011 and caused quite a bit of trouble.
The Great Plains are characterized by wide open spaces with virtually no elevations or hills. The topography is nearly flat and has little variation in elevation. The climate of the region is continental, with cold winters and hot summers and frequent temperature variations.
The Great Plains is a vast agrarian region, with farming and cattle ranching as the major sectors of the economy. It is home to the largest acreage in the United States, as well as major oil and gas-processing centers. The region has a rich history of Native American tribes and settlers who crossed this land during the colonization of North America.
The Foothill Plateau of North America
The Great Plains are a vast expanse of flat land that covers all of central North America and takes over Canada. To the west, they are bordered by the Rocky Mountains.
At the base of the Great Plains is the solid crystalline basement of the North American Platform. Over millions of years it has been overlain by a thick layer of limestone, sandstone, and loess-like loam.
The typical landscape of the Great Plains is composed of separate areas divided by stolon-like escarpments up to 300 meters high into vast plateaus. Each has its own name: the Edwardian, Llano-Estacado, High Plains, and Missouri Plateau.
Over time the rivers have managed to cut through the plains with canyons, and the flowing waters have formed a dense network of ravines. The rivers of the Great Plains are low in water, and yet their waters are heavily used by farmers for irrigation: the water table is steadily dropping, and it is increasingly difficult to raise it from deep water.
The Great Plains landscape is characterized by badlands (in the Missouri Plateau region), hilly areas with deep ravines formed by streams flowing down from the mountains. The relief of badlands is very variable because of constant weathering and high precipitation. Crossing the badlands was extremely difficult, and so colonization of North America took a long time: the wagons of the settlers here constantly broke the wheels, and the horses often could not make such a journey.
Dust storms interfered with life on the Great Plains. In addition, tornadoes regularly swept over the Great Plains, destroying homes and damaging crops. The American portion of the Great Plains falls in what is known as Tornado Alley, the region where most tornadoes are recorded within the United States.
The nature of the Great Plains is unique, and Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, as well as Makoshika State Park, have been established to protect it. Also, the Badlands in the United States have been the site of paleontological finds, thanks to the destructive activity of heavy rains that wash out the soil layer by layer.
Also within the Great Plains is the Oglala National Steppe. Here, as in much of the Great Plains, dry-steppe grasses dominate, and in the south are succulent plants (yucca and opuntia), themselves capable of storing water for the hot season, mesquite shrubs, and bison grass on the prairies.
The fauna is astonishingly numerous: the bats are peaceful creatures, their numbers in some caves in the southern United States numbering in the millions. The meadow dogs, which farmers struggle with, are no less numerous: these creatures eat all the grass around their holes.
There are many reptiles in the southern Great Plains, including a rattlesnake.
But the most famous large prairie animal is the bison, or buffalo. Sixty million bison grazed here before European settlers arrived. Today, buffalo remain only in reserves such as Wood Buffalo and Elk Island, Canada. Elk, wapiti, and coyotes can also be found here.
The Great Plains is a foothill plateau in North America, extending westward to the Rocky Mountains, a section of the Cordilleras. Within the Great Plains are the Plateau of Edward, the Llano-Estacado, the High Plains, and the Missouri Plateau.
That’s what Americans nicknamed their Great Plains, where there aren’t many famous prairies left now: almost all are plowed and seeded with wheat and corn.
The Great Plains are so vast that they occupy the territory of three Canadian provinces and ten American states. Although the provinces and states are highly developed regions, most of the manufacturing is concentrated in the large cities and farming remains the main occupation for the people of the Plains. The fact that the only natural resources found here were large quantities of oil and natural gas also played a role.
The attitude of Canadians and Americans to these lands changed over time: if before 1820 they were considered unfit for farming because of droughts, after the introduction of new types of drought-resistant wheat and breeding of long-horned bulls these areas “went to great demand” in the literal sense.
The only problem remained the Indians. The fact is that the United States acquired these lands from France in 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase), and the French had already concluded peace treaties with the Indians, which the Americans were not going to honor.
But the Great Plains was home to the most numerous Indian tribes: the Ojibway, Apache, Cree, Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux, Pawnee, Assiniboine, and Ouichita. Their ancestors had settled here 15 thousand years ago. When the first Europeans arrived, they brought smallpox, which killed two-thirds of all Indians on the plains: here the infection spread particularly quickly.
Also catastrophic was the extermination by white hunters of bison, whose dried meat-pemmican helped the Indians survive the winter and the skins were used to make clothing and tepees. Over time, buffalo hunting became a kind of entertainment.
By the end of the nineteenth century about a thousand wild buffalo remained. By that time the Indians were on reservations, and in 1872 Yellowstone National Park was created, where bison have already begun to be protected as a symbol of America.
Today, attempts to domesticate the bison continue unabated, but they succeed in sporadic cases.
The development of the Great Plains progressed much faster than the colonization of the East and West Coasts, and it was all about topography: the flat character of the area allowed the fastest to lay a network of railroads, establishing a trade in meat with the whole country and in wheat with the whole world.
The final division of the Great Plains came after the enactment in 1863 of a federal law called the Homestead Act, or Homestead Act, the farming of vacant land. Under the act, anyone who farmed a piece of land received free title to that land after five years.
But those days are long gone; these days the population of the rural areas and small towns of the Great Plains is steadily declining as a result of the enlargement of farms and their transformation into agricultural and industrial enterprises.
New hope came with the invention of powerful turbines to generate inexpensive wind power. The Great Plains had previously been called a “wind corridor” because of the nature of the local wind rose, and now the people on the prairies were able to do more than just grow wheat and raise oxen. This, however, had no effect on the nature of the local festivals, where the cowboy rodeo remains the most important spectacle. A special place among the shows of this kind belongs to the Denver rodeo in Colorado.
- Location: central North America, east of the Rocky Mountains.
- Administrative affiliation: provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan (Canada), New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota (USA).
- Largest cities: San Antonio (Texas, USA) – 1,409,019 people (2012), Dallas (Texas, USA) – 1,241,162 people (2012), Calgary (Alberta, Canada) – 1,096,833 people (2011), Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) – 663,617 people (2011).
- Languages: English, Amerindian dialects.
- Ethnicity: White Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Métis people.
- Religion: Christianity (Protestantism, Catholicism).
- Currency: U.S. dollar.
- Major rivers: Rio Grande, Colorado, Pecos, White River, Canadian, Platte, Arkansas, Missouri.
- Size: 1,300,000 km2.
- Population: more than 20 million people (2013).
- Population density: 15.4 people/km2.
- Length: From east to west – more than 3,600 km, width – 500 to 800 km.
- Highest point: Harney Peak (Black Hills Range, 2,207 m).
- Height above sea level: about 700-1800 m.
Climate and weather
- Continental (temperate in the north, subtropical in the south).
- Winters with little snow and dry summers.
- The average temperature in January is -28°C in the north and -12°C in the south.
- Average July temperature is +13°C in the north and +28°C in the south.
- Average annual precipitation: 500 mm to 250 mm in the north from east to west; 600 mm to 300 mm in the south from east to west.
- The relative humidity is 60-70%.
- Winds schinook. Dust storms. Tornadoes.
- Minerals: oil, natural gas, rare earth elements, lignite, potash and glauber salt, bentonite.
- Industries: ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy, aircraft and machinery, chemicals and petrochemicals, military and nuclear, electrical and automotive, food processing, and, in Canada, woodworking. Electric power, including unconventional.
- Agriculture: plant growing (wheat, pecan, cotton, sorghum, corn, peas, sunflowers, grapes, vegetables), cattle breeding (pasture cattle breeding, sheep breeding, Angora goats).
- Sphere of services: tourist, transport, trade, financial, insurance.
- Natural: Badlands (South Dakota), Makoshika (Montana) and Theodore Roosevelt (North Dakota) national parks, Oglala National Steppe (Nebraska), Balcones Canyons National Wildlife Refuge (Texas), Harney Peak Mountain (South Dakota), Bracken Cave (Texas), Wood Buffalo and Elk Island Bison Reserves (Alberta and Northwest Territories, Canada), Brooks Provincial Dinosaur Park (Alberta, Canada).
- Historical: U.S. Route 66 (Main Street America, New Mexico, USA), Hila Rock Dwellings National Monument (New Mexico, 13th century), San Antonio Historical Park (Texas), Old Fort Bent National Monument (Colorado, USA), Fort Larned and Fort Scott (Kansas, USA), Wild West Museum (Dodge City, Kansas, USA).
- Others: the Indian town of Anadarko (Oklahoma, USA), the Georgetown Loop railroad (Colorado, USA).
- In the southern Great Plains, the lack of moisture is quite tangible, so here grow mes kite trees and shrubs with a developed tap root system capable of extracting water from the ground from a depth of up to 60 meters. American farmers make flour from the fruits of these trees, and the aromatic wood is used in smoking meat.
- Bats are among the most numerous inhabitants of the Great Plains. In Bracken Cave (Texas), where in the summer time gathers about 20 million individuals of bats, a special climate – with high humidity and saturation of the air with carbon dioxide and ammonia, the constant temperature remains at 40 degrees Celsius. It takes 6 hours to fly out to feed the huge population of this cave, and 12 hours to return. The winged creatures have to queue, or they would choke each other out. To keep the cave from overflowing with manure, it is hauled out annually to fertilize the fields. Foldflies also like to settle under city bridges. That is why they build special bridges in the United States. The largest urban colony of bats in North America is in Austin, Texas, under the Congress Avenue Bridge: its number is up to 1.5 million individuals.
- The highest point of the Great Plains, Mount Harney Peak, got its name in the 1850s in honor of General William Harney (1800-1889), who commanded troops in the area. General Harney was derogatorily nicknamed “the killer of women” because his detachment carried out punitive expeditions against the Indians, killing everyone in a row. And the first ascent of the peak was made in 1874 by a group of soldiers under the leadership of General George Custer (1839-76), equally ruthless against the natives. Custer, known for his recklessness, rode up on horseback, while his companions dismounted, fearing for their lives.
- The Black Hills Ranges is the site of an annual international motorcycle rally, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which attracts about half a million participants.
- The Great Plains, especially the prairie region adjacent to the Rocky Mountains, is dominated by chinook (or erroneously referred to as chinook) winds. It most often forms in the winter. The wind is accompanied by a sharp increase in air temperature – up to 30 degrees Celsius – and the subsequent rapid melting of snow. Indians worshipped chinook as it accelerated the ripening of fruits.
- The Wood Buffalo Reservation in Canada has the largest preserved wild herd of American bison in North America, about 2,500 individuals.
- The Great Plains bison grass is so nicknamed because it survives trampling by the hooves of many bison, which ensures the existence of grazing livestock here. In particular, that’s why it has become the official “plant” symbol of Colorado.