Physical Geography of North Carolina

Subject: Science
Type: Descriptive Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1833
Topics: Ecology, Geography, Nature


North Carolina has a diverse physical environment as a state in the United States of America. The state has three distinct physiographic landforms that include the Atlantic Coastal tidewater area, the Piedmont plateau, and the Appalachian mountain ranges to the western side. These diverse physiographic regions give North Carolina a remarkable landscape. Equally, the variation in geography influences the climate of the state the nature of soils and floral composition in the area. North Carolina has a humid subtropical climate although its topography makes the climate to vary. Summers are normally long with a lot of precipitation with winters being brief and snow predominantly seen in the Appalachian mountain ranges.

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North Carolina is a state within the United States of America towards the southeast region in the North American continent in the Western Hemisphere. The state has a costal setting to the east that is located centrally between the state of Florida and Maine (, “The state”). The state is bordered to the west by Tennessee, to the north by Virginia, and to the south by South Carolina and Georgia.

The state covers an area of around 137,269 square kilometres in land size stretching over 805 kilometres from the Atlantic coast to the boarder of Tennessee. From the north, it stretches approximately 322 kilometres to the south in the eastern parts and this varies towards the western parts where it stretches to about 40 kilometres in the westernmost part of the state. North Carolina lies between latitude of 36 degree 30 minutes in its northernmost part and 33 degrees 50 minutes towards its southernmost boarder (NCPedia, “Exploring”). Its longitude lies between 75 degrees 20 minutes to the easternmost boarder at the Atlantic coast and 84 degrees and 25 minutes to the west. The barrier islands and outer banks off the Atlantic coast and the state’s narrow form make it to be distinguishable and easy to recognise on the map.

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According to the theory of plate tectonics, North Carolina is centrally placed in the North American plate (Reed 130). Over the years, geological activities shaped the place to the three land forms like the Atlantic coastal area and the Appalachian ranges. The elevation of the Appalachian ranges rises from the east from the sea level rising westward to the peak of mount Mitchel at 2037 meters above sea level (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1035). Inland from the Atlantic coast, the elevation gradually increases to the fall line where the separation of the piedmont and the coastal plain occurs. The inland topography is irregular to the base of Appalachian ranges contrasting the flat surface from the Atlantic coast.

The coastal plains cover almost half of North Carolina and it rolls gently to the interior. The coastline is comprised of inner and outer coastal plain, which forms the tidewater region and the outer banks. The outer banks consist of sand dunes that can rise up to 30 metres extending from South Carolina up to Virginia (Blevins and Schafale 12). The area is about 6 metres above sea level and it forms a series of islands such as Bodie, Portsmouth, Hatteras, Ocracoke, and Core Banks. Equally, the outer banks form the Cape Haterras, Cape Fear, and Cape Lookout. The tidewater region forms the largest wetland area in North Carolina and forms a series of swamps that form the Great Dismal swamp. It is the only region in the globe where the Venus flytrap plant naturally grows. At the edge of the Tidewater to the west is the inner coastal plain that is much drier with rich farmland sandy soils. Towards the southern region are sand hills that rise up to 1000 feet above sea level. The area has Longleaf pines as the main native plant species.

The piedmont is about 225 kilometres westward from the coastal plains and to the eastern side of the mountain ranges. It is a plateau stretching to the foot of the mountain ranges the area lies between 300 to 1500 feet above sea level forming ridges and hills (NCPedia, “Exploring”). The piedmont borders the coastal plains at the fall zone, where rivers form waterfalls, rapids, and shoals flowing from the hard rocks in the piedmont to the coastal plain softer rocks.

The mountain area forms the smallest area of North Carolina towards the western most part of the state.  The area is has a plateau separated by the southern Appalachian ranges. The mountains comprise the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Unaka and Great smoky mountains rolling into Tennessee (Miller 15). With over 40 mountains, Mount Mitchell in the black mountain group has the highest peak.


North Carolina has the largest inland water of about 9,890 square kilometres comprising of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in North Carolina and it is located in the eastern tidewater area. Most of the lakes in the mountain ranges and piedmont are manmade and Lake Norman and Lake Fontana are the largest (World Atlas, “North Carolina”). Most of the lakes are concentrated on the Catawaba River Basin, which is itself a string of manmade reservoirs. The south-eastern quadrant of North Carolina is home of the Cape Fear River with the Raonoke River draining the North-eastern quadrant from Virginia into the Atlantic ocean at Albermarle Sound. The HYadkin-Pee Dee River bisects North Carolina flowing from the North to the south (, “The state”). To the western part of North Carolina, rivers Little Tennessee and French Broad flow from the Appalachian ranges into Tennessee.

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North Carolina has a varying climate with subtropical conditions experienced to the south-eastern part and the mountain ranges experiencing medium continental climate that has a much cooler summer and heavy precipitation. The area experiences the Maritime effect as a result of the Atlantic Ocean and the large water bodies the state has (Gade et al. 7). Temperatures at the coastal plains and the tidewater area are normally warmer during winter and cooler during summer compared to the inner places. The maritime effect makes temperatures to vary at the coastal plain averaging between 2.60 to 7.00 Celsius. Annual temperatures average from 190 Celsius around the coastal plains to 160 Celsius in the piedmont region and 130 Celsius in the Appalachians.

Precipitation is much higher at the tidewater area and the coastal plains because of the proximity of the ocean compared to the piedmont. Precipitation varies across the three regions with the coastal plains averaging 1,170 to 1,370mm of precipitation annually (Gade et al. 7). The piedmont receives 1,120 to 1,270mm of precipitation and the mountain ranges receive the highest amount of precipitation annually averaging between 1,015 to 2,030mm.

Snow fall is minimal during winter, although the mountain ranges receive a significant amount of snow. Heavy storms are rare although there are occasional Hurricanes at the coast and rare cases of tornadoes reported inland. Sunshine varies depending on cloud cover and length of the day (NCPedia, “Exploring”).  During summer and fall, North Carolina receives the highest percentage sunshine and the lowest sunshine percentage is during winter.

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North Carolina has a diverse variety of natural of vegetation that is mainly due to the varying topographic and climatic conditions. At the coastal plains and Tidewaters, there are marshes and sandy beaches with maritime forests behind the dunes. American beach grass, sea oats, dune elder, and croton are the common vegetation types at the coast. The maritime forests are comprised of live oak and towards the north, there are broadleaf trees such as beech (Gade et al. 12). The coastal plains form part of most of the wetlands such as deep peat bogs, bald cypress swamps, and fresh water marshes. Vegetation is mainly the longleaf pines, broad leafed water oaks and willow oaks, elm, sweet gum, sycamore, and gum cypress along river courses.

The piedmont region has a mosaic of cultivated land and forest and it is the region with a lot of human settlement. Most of the region is dominated by the Virginia pine towards the western and northern section. The eastern section is covered by the loblolly pine with some short leaf pines occupying the central section of the piedmont. Mockernut hickory, the white oak, and the southern red oak are common in the uplands, with the sourwood and dogwood forming a colourful under-story (Blevins and Schafale 21). In some of the elevated areas of the piedmont mountain, vegetation such as white pine, rhododendron, and hemlock are common, such as the case of hanging rock found in the county of stokes.

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The mountain region has diverse habitats from forest, to bogs, and spruce-fir forest. There is over 14000 plant species in the region, with approximately 85 native trees. The Appalachian region has a deciduous broad leaf forest up to 1,524 metres above sea level and needle leaf forest above that elevation. The deciduous forests have birch sugar maple and beech plants (Miller 15). Cove forests comprise of tulips, hemlock, white pine, cucumber tree, poplar, beech, and yellow buckeye plants. Various species of oaks such as chestnut oaks, white oaks, and northern red oak are found in the mountains and each species is specific to a particular elevation (Blevins and Schafale 38). To the south-western part of the Appalachians, black locust and pines dominate the vegetation composition, with blueberry and mountain laurel forming a layer of dense scrubs.

The faunal composition in North Carolina includes squirrels, racoons, deer, rabbits, opossums, black bear common in the tidewaters and mountain ranges, beavers, and coyotes. In the Outer Banks, wild horses are common, especially in Carteret County. North Carolina is home to a variety of birds such as Mocking birds, loggerhead shrike, meadowlarks, blue jays, wild turkeys, robins, cowbirds, bluebirds, bald eagles, and the red-cockaded woodpecker that is almost extinct (Gade et al. 20). A variety of fish and turtles are native to North Carolina inland shores and the barrier islands. Some of the fish species include trout and brook that are in abundance in the Mountain Rivers, the muskies, bluegills, sunfish, crappie, and striped bass fish are common in rivers. On the shores of the barrier islands, loggerhead turtles are common as they find the best nesting places in the months of May through to August.

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  1. Blevins, David, and Michael P. Schafale. Wild North Carolina: Discovering the Wonders of Our State’s Natural Communities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Internet resource. Pp 1-164.
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 24. ‎Chicago: IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2003. Print.
  3. “The state of North Carolina.”.
  4. Gade, Ole, Art Rex, James E. Young, and L B. Perry. North Carolina: People and Environments. Boone, N.C: Parkway Publishers, 2002. Print.
  5. Miller, Joe. 100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina. 2007. Internet resource.
  6. NCPedia. “Exploring North Carolina: Geography, Geology & climate.”.
  7. Reed, John K. Plate Tectonics: A Different View. Dallas, TX: Creation Research Society Books, 2001. Print.
  8. World Atlas. “North Carolina Geography.”.
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