Physical geography is defined as that part of geography that is the study of the geofactors of the physical-natural environment that affect the spatial distribution of terrestrial forms and have a direct or indirect effect on human development on Earth. The attributes or geofactors of the physical-natural environment that are of greatest interest in physical geography are those that appear on the surface of the Earth. These are studied, in turn, by more specialized disciplines such as geomorphology, hydrology, geology, astronomy, biology, climatology and meteorology, physics, edaphology, pedology and others. Physical geography is a branch of the science of geography that studies the systemic form and spatial organization of the earth’s surface (considered together) and, specifically, the natural geographic space. It is one of the two major fields of geographic knowledge. The other is human geography, which studies the manmade geographic space, while regional geography offers a spatial focus, integrating the two fields, but in a localized and previously delimited setting. In this sense, we use physical geography and its systematic divisions here to analyze a particular site and region: the Caribbean.

The region gets its name from its most prominent and identifying geofactor: the Caribbean Sea. Etymologically, the name was derived from the word used by the Europeans during the conquest and colonization period (the 15th and 16th centuries) to refer generically to the various indigenous groups and populations that mainly came from South America and over time spread from the Orinoco Riverarea throughout the Greater and Lesser Antilles. The region consists of all of the territories bordered by the Caribbean Sea. As a result, the Caribbean consists of two sub-regions: the insular Caribbean (those countries that are islands, along with their islets and keys), and the continental Caribbean (all of the countries of North, Central and South American that have coastlines on the Caribbean Sea).

The insular Caribbean consists of the Antilles islands, which are divided into the Greater and LesserAntilles. The Lesser Antilles are all those islands located to the southeast of the island of Puerto Rico to the coast of Venezuela. The Greater Antilles consists of the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (consisting of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The Lesser Antilles consist of the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago. It should be noted that the use of this nomenclature (Greater and Lesser Antilles) is based more on socio-economic identification than geomorphologic, because of all of the Antilles are part of the same geologic structure (insular or volcanic arc). Despite the socio-linguistic differences, the Caribbean, as a whole, shares a socio-economic, political and cultural history rooted in its common colonial origins since the arrival of the Europeans with their plans for conquest and colonization.

Geologically, the Caribbean region’s origin dates to 160 million to 180 million years ago in the Mesozoic Era (on the geologic time scale), although it is estimated that the Antilles began emerging from the bottom of the sea about 40 million years ago. The bottom of the Caribbean Sea was formed by five oceanic basins (the relief or topography below sea level). The Caribbean Plate, which gets its name from the region, covers most of the zone and borders the North American plate to the north, the South American Plate to the south and east, and the Coco and Nazca Plates to the west and southwest, respectively. The contact with the North American Plate to the north and northeast, with its lateral movement in some areas and subduction in others, combined with the convergence subduction movement to the east and southeast with the South American Plate, are elements that are closely tied to the large amount of seismic and volcanic activity the region experiences, especially in the Lesser Antilles. These geologic characteristics put the region at a high risk for tectonic activity that influences seismic occurrences, volcanic activity and a high probability of tsunamis.

The Caribbean is an open sea, but it has characteristics of an interior sea because of its borders, which form a structural part of the Atlantic Ocean. This area separates the two main continental masses of the Americas (North and South America) and has an area of 2,754,000 square kilometers (some 1,063,325 square miles). In terms of location, the Caribbean Sea is located between nine (9) and twenty-two (22) degrees latitude north and between sixty-one (61) and eighty-eight (88) degrees longitude east, which makes it one of the largest seas on the planet. The deepest point in the sea is the Cayman Trench, located between Cuba and Jamaica at 7,686 meters (25,220 feet) below sea level. The Caribbean coastlines have many gulfs and bays: the gulfs of Venezuela, Morrosquillo, Darién, Mosquitos and Honduras. The Caribbean Sea is connected to the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal.

The hydrological network that empties into the Caribbean Sea is one of the most extensive in the world. The longest river that empties to the east is the Magdalena in Colombia. Other rivers that empty into the Caribbean are: Unare, Tocuyo, Catatumbo and Chama in Venezuela; Ranchería, Sinú and Atrato in Colombia; San San, Chagres (Panama Canal) and Changuinola in Panama; Grande, Prinzapolka and Huahua in Nicaragua; San Juan on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which connects Lake Cocibolca or Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean; Segovia on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua; Patuca, Sico, Aguán and Ulúa in Honduras; Motagua and Dulce in Guatemala; Belize in Belize; the Hondo River in México; Cauto in Cuba; Yaque del Sur, Ozama, Nizao, Haina, Chavón and Macoris in the Dominican Republic; Negro in Jamaica and Grande de Patillas in Puerto Rico. The Caribbean is home to about 9% of all the coral reefs on the planet. They cover approximately 20,000 square miles (some 51,799.76 square kilometers). The coral reefs of the Caribbean are considered one of the habitats with the greatest biodiversity on the planet.

The estuary systems of the rivers that empty into the Caribbean are important for the development of ecosystems that support life, both flora and fauna that are endemic and migratory or seasonal species. Some of the characteristics of these systems are stable salinity throughout the year, injection of large amounts of fresh water, a huge accumulation of sediment of organic material (ideal for basic ecological conditions) and permanent influence on the coastal marine waters, which are clearer and less fertile in the Caribbean than in any estuary. On average, the salinity of the Caribbean Sea is 35 to 36 parts per thousand and the surface temperature is 28 °C, while the water temperature at the bottom of the sea can reach 4 °C. Caribbean currents transport considerable amounts of water from the Atlantic Ocean through the western passages in the Lesser Antilles to the northwest, where they exit to the Gulf of Mexico through the Yucatan Channel. On average, between 15% and 20% of the surface water that enters the Caribbean comes from the fresh water sources of the estuaries of the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers, which is carried northwest by the Caribbean current.

The Caribbean’s location in the Intertropical Convergence Zone (specifically in the Tropic of Cancer area, which locates it in the northern hemisphere) of the earth creates many of its geographic peculiarities, specifically in terms of climactic elements such as temperature, precipitation, humidity, solar radiation, winds, atmospheric pressure and evaporation. These elements are influenced at the local or sub-regional level by other factors such as latitude, relation to masses (territorial size versus the magnitude and density of bodies of water), marine currents, orographic factors (mountains and ranges) and elevation above sea level. As a result of the combination of these elements and factors, the region has a tropical climate with median temperatures of approximately 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 °C), with little variation over the course of the year.

Author: Harrison Flores Ortiz
Published: February 21, 2012.

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