Located at the geographical center of the North American continent, North Dakota is bounded on the north by the 49th parallel, which separates it from the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Its eastern boundary, the only natural boundary of the state, consists of the Red River of the North, or Red River, and one of its headwater streams, the Bois de Sioux River. North Dakota’s boundaries enclose a rectangular area of 183,112 sq km (70,700 sq mi), including 4,465 sq km (1,724 sq mi) of inland water, making it the 18th largest state in the nation. From north to south its maximum distance is 341 km (212 mi), and from east to west, North Dakota extends for 581 km (361 mi). The state slopes downward from southwest to northeast.
The lowest point, 229 m (750 ft) above sea level, is found at the Red River near Pembina, in the northeastern corner of the state. The state’s highest point, 1,069 m (3,506 ft), is White Butte, in southwestern North Dakota. The mean elevation of the state is about 580 m (1,900 ft).
North Dakota is a Plains state. Although it is largely flat or rolling, there are rough and hilly sections. In relatively recent geologic time a continental glacier spread over all but the southwestern section. It brought soil from Canada, scoured down the highlands, and filled in the lowlands. The glacier blocked the northward-flowing Red River, forming the glacial Lake Agassiz, whose dry lake basin forms the flat and fertile Red River valley in the east. Two major physiographic provinces, or natural regions, are represented in North Dakota. These are the Central Lowland and the Great Plains, both subdivisions of the Interior Plains. Eastern North Dakota belongs to the Western Lake section of the Central Lowland.
The low plains around the Red River are the remains of the lake basin of Lake Agassiz. West of the old lake basin the terrain rises a little and is known as a drift plain because of the drift, or finely ground rock and gravel, left by the glacier. In the northern part of the state the Pembina escarpment separates the Red River valley and the drift plain and is especially noticeable in the Pembina Mountains.
In Canada the escarpment is called the Manitoba escarpment. The remainder of the Red River valley is separated by several successive beaches laid down by the retreating glacial Lake Agassiz. Another feature of the Central Lowland in North Dakota is the Turtle Mountains. Straddling the North Dakota-Manitoba border, these mountains, which resemble a mesa 760 m (2,500 ft) in elevation, present an interesting contrast to the plains because they are forested. Marking the division between the Central Lowland on the east and the Great Plains on the west is a section called the Coteau du Missouri, or “hills of the Missouri,” which is part of the glaciated section of the Missouri Plateau.
The coteau, up to 40 km (25 mi) wide, consists of moraine, or boulders and rocks left by the glacier. The glacial moraine of the Coteau du Missouri appears in a series of hummocks and hills 30 to 40 m (100 to 150 ft) high. The coteau runs roughly parallel to the Missouri River in a long diagonal belt through the state.
The glaciated portion of the Missouri Plateau is mostly a subdued rolling prairie. The Missouri River has cut a channel from 120 to 150 m (400 to 500 ft) deep, and the stream bed between the bluffs is as much as 5 km (3 mi) wide in some places. Many old lake basins are seen in this plateau area, and here and there isolated mountains rise above the surface of the land. An example is the Killdeer Mountains in west central North Dakota. These sandstone-capped buttes are remnants of the landscape prior to the wind and water erosion and rise about 180 m (about 600 ft) above the surrounding countryside.
The unglaciated section of the Missouri Plateau in the southwestern corner of North Dakota is distinct from the other parts of the state chiefly because its surface features have not been affected by glaciation. This section contains White Butte, the highest elevation in the state, Sentinel Butte, Black Butte, Bullion Butte, the Killdeer Mountains, and the Badlands. They were so named by early travelers who found them bad lands to travel through. North Dakota’s Badlands are only one of several such areas in which erosion near rivers has cut down the land surrounding the river systems, leaving small buttes or peaks surrounded by deep gullies and ravines.
Badlands topography is seen in dry areas where vegetation has not grown up to prevent such erosion, especially when sudden torrential rains occur. Usually in such areas the surface material is soft and easily cut away. In the Badlands of North Dakota slow-burning beds of lignite coal have melted adjoining clay beds into colorful masses called clinker. The Badlands follow much of the Little Missouri River to the point where it empties into the Missouri River. "North Dakota" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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