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Beep, beep! When Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner, he often runs off of the flat top of a cliff very high above the ground. In other words, he runs off of a plateau! A plateau (pronounced plah-toe) is an area of flat ground that is much higher than the surrounding area. Often, it also has one or more sides that are super steep. Plateaus are important because they are rich in minerals, making them good for mining and farming.

An image of a famous plateau at monument valley.

Plateaus are really high up!

How are Plateaus Formed? 

They can form in different ways, either by volcanic magma, lava, or erosion. Hot, molten rock called magma rises from the inside of the earth (the mantle). This process pushes the Earth’s surface upward to form a flat mountain. Lava can also spread from cracks in the Earth’s crust to create plateaus. Finally, water and glaciers can erode mountains, resulting in a plateau.
In the video, go to 1 minute and 30 seconds to hear a short explanation of a plateau.

Plateau Classification

By the Surrounding Environment

Plateaus are classified based on the landmarks around them. Intermontane plateaus are the highest type and surrounded by mountains, like the Tibetan plateauPiedmont plateaus like the Patagonian plateau in Argentina have mountains on one side and a plain or a sea on the otherContinental plateaus have plains or seas around them and are far from any mountains, like the Antarctic plateau

By the Formation Process

We can also classify plateaus by how they form. 
  • Dissected plateaus are the result of colliding tectonic plates that push Earth’s crust upward. One example is the Colorado Plateau, which has risen about a centimeter per year for more than 10 million years
  • Volcanic plateaus form because of many small volcanic eruptions. The lava from the eruptions builds up to create a plateau, such as the North Island Volcanic plateau in New Zealand

    An image of Monument Valley, with several plateaus visible.

    Tectonic plate shifts can create plateaus like these.