Physical Features of the Northeast

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The northeastern United States -- the New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and New York -- is home to striking natural beauty. Composing it are massive, bald-topped mountains, lush lowland forests, rocky storm-wracked coasts and everything from tiny wintergreen herbs to titanic moose. Its physical features represent vast scales of time, from the ancient crystalline heart of North America to freshly laid beach sand.

Atlantic Coastal Plain

A sliver of the Atlantic Coastal Plain reaches the Northeast in the form of the “Outer Lands” archipelago off the New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island coasts. These islands belong to that northerly region of the coastal plain called the Embayed Section, named for the prevalence of drowned river valleys, represented by estuaries and bays, which break up the coastline. The Outer Lands -- the major components of which are Long Island, Block Island, Nantucket, the Elizabeth Islands, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod -- are mostly composed of glacial deposits from the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which swamped the region in Pleistocene time.

The Appalachian Mountains

Most of the Northeast belongs to the Appalachians, which commence in Atlantic Canada and arc southwestward all the way to northern Alabama. Here the range is mainly divided into the New England, Appalachian Plateaus and Valley-and-Ridge provinces, with a small section of the Piedmont reaching southeastern New York. The Appalachians, heavily weathered and fairly low in their present form, are the remnants of once-towering mountains thrust up during tectonic collisions mainly between about 250 and 400 million years ago. While the chain crests in the Southern Appalachians of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Northeast still claims some of its most impressive peaks, particularly in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains and lone Mount Katahdin in central Maine.

The Adirondacks

Bordered by the Appalachians on the south, east and northeast -- and closely related to them ecologically -- the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York are actually a distinct geological province. They represent a stateside portion of the Canadian Shield, a rough upland covering most of central and eastern Canada made up of the Precambrian bedrock of North America’s continental core. The Adirondacks form a dome of rugged mountains that culminate in the High Peaks, crowned by 1,629-meter (5,344-foot) Mount Marcy.

Natural Communities

A rich spectrum of temperate and near-boreal forests define much of the Northeast’s ecological landscape. Oak-hickory woods in the southern and coastal regions merge with more northerly mixed-hardwood communities dominated by sugar maple and American beech. Spruce-fir forests with boreal affiliations occupy Appalachian and Adirondack high country and northern Maine. Within that broad-stroked palette are many unique ecosystems, including the maritime forests and salt marshes of the Outer Lands and the alpine heath and tundra of the highest, severest mountaintops.


About the Author

Ethan Shaw is an independent naturalist and freelance outdoors/nature writer based in Oregon. He holds a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and a graduate certificate in G.I.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His primary interests from both a fieldwork and writing perspective include landscape ecology, geomorphology, the classification of ecosystems, biogeography, wildlife/habitat relationships, and historical ecology. He’s written for a variety of outlets, including Earth Touch News, RootsRated, Backpacker,, and Atlas Obscura, and is presently working on a field guide.