What is the Continental Divide and why is it important?

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If you've heard of the Continental Divide but wondered what it really is, you're in the right place! We're going to answer the question, "What is the Continental Divide, and why is it important?" We'll look at how the Continental Divide forms, what they do, and how they affect humans and animals.

Panoramic view of Glass Lake clear and colorful Glass Lake surrounded by rugged Continental Divide in sunny summer - Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA
The Continental Divide is a mountainous geographical feature in the landscape that divides and drains rainfall into different regions.

©iStock.com/SeanXu

What is the Continental Divide?

The Continental Divide is a mountainous geographical feature in the landscape that divides and drains rainfall into different regions.

They are the big boundaries that define land, rivers, seas, and in some cases, inflow basins with no outlet to the sea, rainwater, or snowmelt.

Imagine a mountain range like the Rockies. When it rains overhead, the raindrops fall on either side of the highest peak and then descend in opposite directions. This sets up the flow of the river, meaning those storm water droplets end up in very different places.

Simply put, the Continental Divide is the Drainage Divide.

Most Challenging Mountains in the Rockies
The Continental Divide is a mountainous geographical feature in the landscape that separates rainfall.

© Nicholas Courtney/Shutterstock.com

America's Continental Divide

The United States has six Continental Divides that determine where rainfall ends, but when people say "Continental Divide," they're usually referring to the Continental Divide, sometimes simply called the Great Divide.

It stretches mostly along the highest ridge of the Rocky Mountains from Point Prince of Wales on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska to the Strait of Magellan in the Andes of South America.

It is considered the greatest because it is the longest and directs water into the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.

Rainwater that falls east of the Continental Divide ends up in the Atlantic Ocean. It flows into the South Platte River, flows through the Mississippi River, New Orleans, and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Rainwater that falls on the west side flows in the opposite direction from the Pacific Ocean through the Colorado River. It passes through Utah, the Hoover Dam and Las Vegas.

In some cases, the water flows into endorheic basins without outlets, such as Utah's Great Salt Lake or Oregon's Crater Lake.

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The Great Dividing Range stretches from Alaska through Mexico to South America, diverting vast amounts of rainfall and water. This is a huge geological feature. The highest point is Colorado's Mount Gray at 14,270 feet.

Cairns on the Great Dividing Trail
The Acoma and Zuni tribes built stone bridges and cairns that still stand on the Great Dividing Trail.

© Grenierb/Shutterstock.com

Central and South America

In Central America, the Continental Divide runs along the Sierra Madre mountain range, through which the Panama Canal passes. Continuing on to South America, the Continental Divide runs along the Andes. Water flows west from the Andes into the Pacific Ocean and east into the Atlantic Ocean.

How is it made?

continental plate
The Earth's crust is made up of seven continental plates that move back and forth.

© Matt Makes Photos/Shutterstock.com

The Earth's crust is made up of seven continental plates that move back and forth. When they rub against each other, they cause earthquakes.

In the distant past, continental plates collided with enormous force, and when a small tectonic plate collided with the North American plate 70 million years ago, it was subducted (pulled down). This movement pushed up the towering mountains we know today as the Continental Divide.

It is astounding that the events of Earth millions of years ago have such a profound impact on today's ecosystems, weather patterns, droughts and crop harvests on which we depend.

Why is it so far to the west?

The Continental Divide, known as the "Great Divide," is off-center and lies to the west of the continent. It was not designed by man, it was a geographical accident when the world was formed.

When America was colonized by Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Great Divide was a sign of the unknown in the "West," a barrier to westward expansion. Lewis and Clark's expeditions crossed it at Lemmy Pass in Montana, while settlers made their way through South Pass in Wyoming.

Thousands of years before settlers arrived, the Continental Divide was inhabited by indigenous peoples, including the Acoma and Zuni tribes, whose stone bridges and cairns still stand along the Great Dividing Trail. The tallest mountain is sacred to the Blackfeet Nation's creation story. They called these peaks "The Mistake, the Backbone of the World."

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America's Continental Divide

continental divide
The continental divide between the European and North American continental plates in Iceland.

© Benedikt Juerges/Shutterstock.com

The North American continent contains six mountaintop watersheds that channel water into the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, or into inland lakes or salt flats.

These are the divisions most experts agree on:

  • Lauren/North
  • Arctic
  • saint lawrence
  • East
  • great basin

The Continental and Laurentian Divides meet at the Triple Divide in Glacier Park, Montana. It is a popular tourist attraction and is named for the water that enters the three oceans from here. Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Experts consider it the "hydrological apex" of North America.

Why the Continental Divide Matters

Continental divides are important because they determine where fresh water flows and to whom. Every living thing on our planet needs water to survive.

Groundwater creates weather patterns, rivers and streams, irrigates crops and supplies many habitat areas on its way to the ocean.

It also created a different culture and way of life due to the water it provided. Open farms requiring dams and irrigation systems would look very different if shifted.

If the watershed were a few more miles east or west, it would dramatically change the topography, weather and land use of the United States as we know it.

What animals live near the North American Continental Divide?

Brown bear close-up
Always carry bear spray and keep your eyes open on the Great Divide Trail.

©Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock.com

The Great Divide Trail runs along the Continental Divide, home to a wide variety of interesting, unusual and sometimes dangerous animals. The trail is one of the most ecologically diverse in the country. It runs 3,100 miles across five western states!

Habitats include tundra, coniferous forests, subalpine meadows, steep snow-capped peaks, grasslands, sagebrush, and miles of rivers and streams, all of which flow from the tip of the Continental Divide to the east or Westfall rainwater recharge.

This is bear country, home to grizzly and black bears. Always carry bear spray and keep your eyes open on the Great Divide Trail. Cougars are rare, but they live in the Rocky Mountains, as do wolves.

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Beavers, yellow-bellied woodchucks, coyotes, snow hares, pikas, northern toads, and bats all make home here, and hikers often spot many ungulates (these are ungulates), including deer, elk, Bighorn sheep, moose and a variety of cattle.

Bald eagles soar over the hilltops, and white-tailed ptarmigans, chickadees, western tanagers, and many species of owls and woodpeckers are popular among birders.

The Continental Divide is a rich habitat for a variety of animals.

Does Europe have a Continental Divide?

Continental Divide of Europe
Sign on the Rhine-Danube Canal, the watershed of the Continental Europe, Germany.

©Steve Heap/Shutterstock.com

Yes, there is a Continental Divide on every continent except Antarctica, which doesn't get enough rainfall from its peaks to flow into its basins.

Europe is surrounded by sea, has many mountains, and thus has many continental divides, but the main point that experts agree on (and not all of them agree on!) is the European watershed that separates the waters of the Northeast from those of the Southwest. The Northwestern institutions are:

  • Atlantic
  • North Sea
  • Baltic Sea
  • arctic sea

Southern institutions are:

  • the mediterranean
  • adriatic sea
  • aegean sea
  • black sea
  • caspian sea

Continental Political Divide

Some commentators refer to the way countries tend to vote democratic or republic on a regular basis as the Continental Divide. In some cases, it refers to social differences between Americans and Canadians.

What is the Continental Divide? Why is it so important?

Let's recap.

The Continental Divide is a mountain range formed millions of years ago by the movement of Earth's continental plates. It stretches from Alaska to the tip of South America and determines whether rainfall flows to the Pacific or Atlantic.

This is important because it divides water resources. In turn, this creates ecological habitats and weather patterns, so the Continental Divide determines where we can successfully grow crops and thrive.

In the past, the Continental Divide was part of the creation myths of indigenous peoples, and during colonial times it was a great physical barrier to westward expansion.

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