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Landforms

A landform is a feature of the Earth’s surface that has occurred naturally. The world’s oceans are the most common landform on Earth, taking up seventy percent of the Earth’s surface. Plains are the second most common, making up around half of the Earth’s land surface. 

An image of a plain and hills. These are examples of landforms.

Many landforms including hills, mountains, and a peninsula.

Note that while plains and oceans are landforms, they are also classified as biomesA biome is an ecological community that has a specific climate and certain plants and animals that live in them. To learn more about these and others, check out Earth’s Biomes in Kids Biology! 
 

How Do Landforms Form? 

The Earth’s surface is constantly in motion, even if we don’t know it! According to the theory of plate tectonics, the Earth’s surface is divided up into plates that are always moving and colliding with each other.
 
Some landforms take millions of years to form; others are also formed by plate tectonics, but take much less time on the geological timescale. The way plate tectonics impacts each type of landform, we will cover a little later. Plate tectonics aren’t the only way landforms are created, though.  Weathering and erosion are also responsible for changes on the Earth’s surface.

An image showing the weathering of a dirt cliff.

A small cliff created by weathering.

Some Landforms to Know:

Canyon

A canyon is a very steep and narrow valley. Natural elements such as water and plate tectonics can all contribute to the making of a canyon. Plate tectonics are often responsible for the formation of mountains and plateaus, and from there, water does the rest of the work. Sometimes, a river forges a path that cuts through mountains or plateaus.

An image showing a bend in the Grand Canyon.

A portion of the Grand Canyon.

Cave

A cave is a hollow space that exists deep within the Earth. Caves exist on all seven continents of the world, and even under the sea! Inside a cave, the environment stays pretty constant, with little temperature change, high humidity, and limited light sources

An image of a cave entrance.

The entrance to a cave running into the mountains.

Hill

A hill is a part of the landscape that’s elevated above its surroundings. Hills generally aren’t as steep as mountains, but they do have a high point called a summit. Hills tend to slope, and though sometimes they can be very large, they aren’t as tall as a mountain.
 
Technically, there isn’t a rule to separate hills and mountains, so sometimes it can be tricky to tell which is which. For instance, the Ozark Mountains actually consist of mountains, hills, and even plateaus! 
 

Mountain

A mountain is one of the four major landforms. Similarly to a hill, it is an elevated portion of the Earth’s surface but tends to be much larger and peaks at the top. Mountains form when tectonic plates collide at convergent boundaries, pushing both plates upwards. 

An image of a large mountain in Glacier National Park.

Mountains protruding out from the earth’s surface.

Plateau

A plateau is similar to a mountain in that it is a surface that sits elevated from sea level. However, instead of peaking at the top, it is flat. A plateau is another one of the four major landforms. Plateaus fall under different categories based on their size. A small plateau is a butte, while a medium-sized plateau is a mesa (mesa is the Spanish word for table!) 
 

Valley

When mountains form, so do valleys. A valley is a low-lying space between mountains or hills, usually shaped like the letters U or V, that is longer than it is wide. Colliding boundaries are not the only way that valleys form. Other forces of nature, such as glaciers, rivers, and streams can create valleys as well.

An image of a valley with a river.

A deep valley. It’s like the opposite of a mountain.

If a valley sits between mountains or hills, it’s called a hollow. A rift valley is an especially large valley created by divergent boundaries. To diverge means to move apart or separate, so divergent boundaries are places where the tectonic plates move apart, creating a rift or gap between them
 

Volcano

A volcano is a place on the Earth’s surface where materials from within its core can escape. Often, a volcano takes the shape of a mountain. When you think of a mountain, you probably don’t think of weak rock. However, the surface of a volcano is somewhat thin! This allows magma to break through, becoming lava once it crosses the surface.

Check Out These Other Great Resources!

(Video) Crash Course on Landforms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FN6QX43QB4g

The National Park Service on Landforms: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/geology/landforms.htm

Scholastic Study Jams on Landforms: http://studyjams.scholastic.com/studyjams/jams/science/rocks-minerals-landforms/landforms.htm

 Written by: Caroline Birt