The Rocky Mountains are the spine of North America. They run about 4,828 km (3,000 miles) south, from Alaska all through Canada to New Mexico. The Rocky Mountain chain is made up of more than 100 smaller mountain ranges. A part of North America’s Continental Divide is formed by the Rocky Mountains, which is a line of the main points in North America. The Continental Divide splits many rivers that flow east from the ones flowing west. These rivers start on the high points of the Rocky Mountains. They include the Mackenzie and the Rio Grande, Saskatchewan, Snake, Missouri, Columbia, Arkansas and Colorado rivers. The Rocky Mountain chain derives its name from its numerous treeless rocky peaks. Do you know that Mount Elbert in Colorado happens to be the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains at (4,399 m) 14,433 feet. The chain can be allocated to five units, the Middle, Southern, Northern, Brooks and the Canadian Ranges. In Canada, the Rocky Mountains rise as a solid wall that once made it very hard for settlers from Europe to travel through them.
The Prehistoric Rocky Mountains
Some parts of the Rocky Mountains were built differently. Some of them were volcanic rocks that were formed under a prehistoric sea more than a billion years ago. They were caught in the middle of vast, moving plates of the Earth’s crust. These rocks happened to be pushed up into the high mountains. They were later compressed by erosion. This enabled the ancient seas to roll over the land and to also leave sediments of clay and sand, which later hardened into rock. Over 75 million years ago, the pressure from below the Earth’s crust pushed these rocks upward into the great rocky mountain ranges. 600,000 years ago, the pressure and heat of the mountain made volcanoes to flare up, commonly in the Wyoming and Montana area. Over time, streams and rivers carved out steep narrow valleys.
Ice and Fire
Volcanoes have been erupting in the Rocky Mountains for millions of years. The area has a lot of hot spots where magma from below the Earth’s crust rises close to the surface. There are signs of hot activity beneath the ground from where steam erupts like bubbling mud pots, hot springs, fumaroles and geysers. A lot of hot spots are seen in Montana, Yellowstone National Park, Idaho and Wyoming.
To add to the volcanoes, the Rocky Mountains that we see today were shaped from Mountains by glaciers. Glaciers are basically slow-moving rivers of ice that carves U-shaped valleys. The Canadian and northern U.S. Rocky Mountains have several glaciers that continuously wear down the high mountains. Once the glaciers dissolve, they form good-looking rushing rivers and lakes, as well as hills or rocky ridges called moraines.
A Variety of Climates
The temperature in the Rocky Mountain changed significantly. The highest points stay enclosed in snow all year-round. One snow-enclosed range in Colorado is named the Never Summer Mountains just because its peaks stay snow-capped all through the year. The Rocky Mountains get very little rainfall. Most of the moistness they get come as snow during the winter. This snow dissolves in the spring, and during summer it offers much-needed water for the plains and valleys. Weather clouds travel from the Pacific Ocean, only to move inland and smash the western side of the Rocky Mountains. The moisture from these clouds later cools and drops snow rain.
Plant Life Regions
Forest fires are very common in the dry Rockies area. Once the fire is put away, huge stands of lodgepole pines start growing in the burned-out area. The fire helps lodgepole pines to breed. The pinecones collect heat from the fire to enable them spread their seeds. The trees in Yellowstone National Park are 85% lodgepole pines.
There’re three regions of plant life in the Rocky Mountains. In the montane zone, 1,707–2,896 m (5,600 to 9,500 feet) above the sea level, ponderosa and lodgepole pines grow. In the subalpine region at about 2,896–3,353 m (9,500 to 11,000 feet), subalpine and Engelmann spruce trees grow. The alpine zone, 3,353 m (11,000 feet) and above, has a cold climate where trees don’t grow. The plants growing over there are very low to the ground which enables them to stay out of the cold winds. Wildflowers, grasses and Mosses are common. Most wildflowers have hairs on their leaves and stems which protects them from the cold winds. These flowers are often purple and red which enables them to take the heat of the sun better.