North Carolina, 29th in size among the 50 states, has a total area of 139,391 sq km (53,819 sq mi), including 10,256 sq km (3,960 sq mi) of inland water. Its maximum dimensions are 809 km (503 mi) from east to west and 301 km (187 mi) from north to south. The state’s mean elevation is about 210 m (700 ft).
Largely on the basis of its topography and landforms North Carolina is often divided into three natural regions, or physiographic provinces: the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, and the Blue Ridge (or Mountain) province.
The Atlantic Coastal Plain makes up about 45 percent of the state (see Coastal Plain). It is a low, flat to gently sloping plain that tilts slightly seaward. Much of the region is less than 75 m (250 ft) above sea level. The western margin is marked by the Fall Line, in actuality a zone where the rivers descend over small waterfalls and rapids from the ancient, harder rock of the Piedmont to the more easily eroded sands, clays, and shales of the Atlantic Coastal Plain. At the Fall Line the land of the Coastal Plain rises in some places to elevations of 120 m (400 ft). The Coastal Plain is actually a series of broad, very flat terraces or steps, which are bounded on their western edges by abrupt rises in elevation that represent ancient beach ridges.
The easternmost of these terraces are poorly drained in places, giving rise to large swampy areas or “pocosins,” an Algonquian word meaning “swamp on high ground.” The Great Dismal Swamp is one of these pocosins. Others are Holly Shelter Swamp and Green Swamp.
The river valleys in the eastern Coastal Plain were flooded by a rise in sea level since the end of the last period of glaciation, creating the broad sounds and rivers, which are called estuaries.
Most of the Atlantic Coastal Plain has a sandy surface, and solid rock is very deep below many layers of sediments. Marsh grass and water-tolerant trees cover the wetter areas. Pine forests occupy the better-drained sandy sections. The seaward part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, extending from 50 to 130 km (30 to 80 mi) inland, is usually referred to as the Tidewater. Marshes, swamps, and lakes cover wide areas. The irregular shoreline has numerous bays and sounds that penetrate westwardly into the Coastal Plain. Sand dunes are numerous near the shore in many places.
Low narrow sandbars, called barrier islands, enclose quiet lagoons, or sounds, and provide long stretches of attractive beaches. The outermost barrier islands are called the Outer Banks, which enclose the large body of water known as Pamlico Sound. At three locations along the coast—Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear—the sandbars project far out under the Atlantic Ocean, creating dangerous shoals that are hazards to shipping. Just offshore from Cape Hatteras are the treacherous Diamond Shoals, site of hundreds of shipwrecks. This coast is nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” North Carolina’s coastline measures 484 km (301 mi). The tidal shoreline, which includes islands, bays, and river mouths, stretches for 5,432 km (3,375 mi).
The inner portion of the Atlantic Coastal Plain is somewhat higher in elevation and much better drained than the outer Coastal Plain. The gently rolling surface and light sandy soils have helped mold it into a leading agricultural region. In its southwestern part, near the South Carolina border, is found the Sandhills, a hilly area of ancient beach sand dunes with heights up to 180 m (600 ft) above sea level. This area is known for its peach orchards and for its winter golf resort areas.
North Carolina’s Piedmont is about the same size as the Atlantic Coastal Plain, comprising about 45 percent of the state’s area (see Piedmont Plateau). Lying between the Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains, this rolling to hilly transitional region ranges from 150 m (500 ft) above sea level in places on its eastern border to as much as 460 m (1,500 ft) in the west.
The mountain region of North Carolina occupies about 10 percent of the state. It is part of the southern portion of the Appalachian Mountain province, which extends from New England in the north to Alabama in the south.
In the southern part of the Appalachian system, the easternmost mountain ridge is called the Blue Ridge. The Blue Ridge province attains its greatest width, height, and ruggedness in the area along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. In places the boundary between these two states follows the crest of the mountain ridges. The region is divided into a number of smaller mountain ranges. The easternmost range is specifically called the Blue Ridge, while along the western margin lie several ranges, including the Unaka Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. Several ranges, such as the Black Mountains and the Plott Balsam Mountains, connect the easternmost and westernmost ranges, enclosing lower-lying basins and valleys. The Asheville Basin, in the French Broad Valley, is the most significant. The general elevation within the mountains varies from 600 to 1,200 m (2,000 to 4,000 ft), with valleys considerably lower. Many peaks are considerably higher; 50 exceed 6,000 ft (equivalent to 1,829 m). Mount Mitchell in the Black Mountains, 2,037 m (6,684 ft) high, is the highest point not only in the state but also in the entire eastern United States east of the Black Hills of South Dakota. "North Carolina" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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