3.1 The United States of America

Let’s cover some United States geography!

NASA image of the United States at night
NASA image of the city lights of the United States at night

First, let’s get a whirlwind tour of the 50 U.S. states courtesy of Geography Now!

Geography Now: All 50 U.S. states summarized (Geography Now!)

Don’t forget that the United States also owns some territories:

Climate

Climatically, the US is quite diverse, ranging from the lush islands of Hawaii to semi-arid desert in the southwest. These diverse physical conditions have enabled North America to have a wide variety of natural resources, but have also contributed to significant regional differences.

As you increase in latitude north, the temperature decreases and as you travel west to east, the precipitation increases.

So, California, on the west coast, is relatively warm and dry, while Florida on the east coast is hot and wet. If you live in the United States, which climate zone do you live in? If you don’t live in the U.S. find the climate zone where a friend or family member lives. Figure it out by looking at this map:

Climate of the United States
United States Climate – Click on the image if you want to see it full-size.

The main influence on U.S. weather is the polar jet stream which migrates northward into Canada in the summer months, and then southward into the US in the winter months. The jet stream brings in large low pressure systems from the northern Pacific Ocean that enter the US mainland over the Pacific Northwest. The Cascade Range, Sierra Nevada, and Rocky Mountains pick up most of the moisture from these systems as they move eastward. Greatly diminished by the time they reach the High Plains, much of the moisture has been sapped by the orographic effect as it is forced over several mountain ranges.

Orographic effect is just a fancy word for rain shadow.

Once it moves over the Great Plains, uninterrupted flat land allows it to reorganize and can lead to major clashes of air masses. In addition, moisture from the Gulf of Mexico is often drawn northward. When combined with a powerful jet stream, this can lead to violent thunderstorms, especially during spring and summer. Sometimes during winter these storms can combine with another low pressure system as they move up the East Coast and into the Atlantic Ocean, where they intensify rapidly. These storms are known as Nor’easters and often bring widespread, heavy rain, wind, and snowfall to New England. The uninterrupted grasslands of the Great Plains also lead to some of the most extreme climate swings in the world.

You can read about one of those extreme climate swings in The Children’s Blizzard, a book scheduled in Guest Hollow’s American History Year 1!

“Thousands of impoverished Northern European immigrants were promised that the prairie offered “land, freedom, and hope.” The disastrous blizzard of 1888 revealed that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled, and America’s heartland would never be the same.”

Let’s watch a quick video that explains how that jet stream works:

KCRA News: How Does The Jet Stream Work?

Extreme facts about the U.S. climate and weather:

In northern Alaska, the temperature has fallen as low as −80 °F (−62.2 °C)!

On the other end of the spectrum, Death Valley, California once reached 134 °F (56.7 °C), the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth!

The Quinault Rainforest in Washington state has an average of 137 inches of rain. Maui, Hawaii gets even more, with an average of 404 inches of rain each year!

In the winter of 1971-1972, Mount Rainier in Washington state got 1,122 inches of snow!

A Regions Tour & Some Geography Facts

Now let’s learn about the geographic regions of the United States via this video:

Hannah Oberlander: Geographic Regions of the United States
Optional video: RealLifeLore: How the Geography of the US is Weirder Than You Think

People and Culture

The United States is an extremely diverse place full of many different people and many different cultures that mix together to create what is known as a “melting pot.” It’s far beyond the scope of this book to cover all the different types of people who live in the United States but let’s take a quick look at a few of them that contribute their own unique culture(s) to the United States.

The Amish are a group of traditionalist Christians who are known for simple living, plain dress, and a reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology. The rules of the church, the Ordnung, must be observed by every member and cover many aspects of day-to-day living, including prohibitions or limitations on the use of power-line electricity, telephones, and automobiles, as well as regulations on clothing. Most Amish do not buy commercial insurance or participate in Social Security (a program administered by the U.S. government that provides monetary benefits for retirement and/or disability).

Pennsylvania and Ohio have the largest populations of Amish, followed by Indiana, Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, Missouri, and Kentucky. There are also a few settlements in Canada and Latin America.
Drew Binsky: Who Are THE AMISH? (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

The Gullah are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of the U.S. states of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, in both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. They developed a creole language, the Gullah language, and a culture rich in African influences that makes them distinctive among African Americans. he Gullah people speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure.

Gullah Geechee Storyteller Preserves a Painful Past | National Geographic

Borough Park in New York is home to one of the largest Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities outside of Israel, with one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the United States.

Hasidic men most commonly wear dark overclothes. On weekdays, they wear a long, black, cloth jacket called a rekel. The long overcoats are considered modest. Hasidic men customarily wear black hats during the weekdays.

Hasidic women wear clothing adhering to the principles of modest dress in Jewish law. This includes long, conservative skirts and sleeves past the elbow, as well as covered necklines. Also, the women wear stockings to cover their legs; in some Hasidic groups, such as Satmar or Toldot Aharon, the stockings must be opaque. In keeping with Jewish law, married women cover their hair, using either a sheitel (wig), a tichel (headscarf), a shpitzel, a snood, a hat, or a beret.

Hasidic Jews, like many other Orthodox Jews, typically produce large families; the average Hasidic family in the United States has 8 children. This is followed out of a desire to fulfill the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply”.

You can find some great documentaries on YouTube about Orthodox Jews and their lifestyle.

Hasidic family in Borough Park - Hasidic District - Brooklyn, New York
Hasidic family in Borough Park – Hasidic District – Brooklyn, New York
Oprah Breaks Bread with a Hasidic Family 

There are also many native Americans in the United States, some who live on reservations. Here’s a quick video featuring life on a Lakota Sioux reservation:

Did you know there are gypsies in America, too? They have their own unique culture which is featured in the National Geographic T.V. show American Gypsies and also on other T.V. shows like TLC’s My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.

American Gypsies – Meet the Gypsies | National Geographic
50 People Show Us Their States’ Accents | Culturally Speaking | Condé Nast Traveler

American cuisine varies based on traditions, regional areas, and blends the contributions of groups around the world. Here is a small sampling of things some people think of when thinking of food in America:

Apple pie
Apple pie is an unofficial symbol of the United States.
Philly cheesesteak
The Philly cheesesteak has its origins in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Biscuits and gravy
Biscuits and gravy is a Southern breakfast.
New York style pizza
New York-style pizza originated in New York City in the early 1900’s.
Cranberry sauce
Cranberry sauce is often eaten at Thanksgiving. Cranberries are a native fruit.
Pecan pie is a specialty of the South.

If you live in the U.S. and are reading this, please share a food or recipe from your region of the U.S. in the comments below!

The United States is made up of so many interesting people and cultures. Let us know if you would like us to feature a specific culture.

Key Takeaways:

✎ The United States is comprised of 50 states and 5 inhabited territories.
✎ The climate of the U.S. is diverse and influenced by the polar jet stream.
✎ The U.S. has different regions with their own geographical features and climates. These regions are the the Coastal Plain, Appalachian Mountains, Canadian Shield, Interior Lowlands, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Basin & Range, and the Coastal Range.
✎ The U.S. is comprised of many different cultures that have come together in a “melting pot.” There are also groups that retain and uphold elements of their own distinct cultures, such as the Amish and Gullah.

Next: 3.2 Canada

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working. 🙂

Image and additional information credits:

United States size comparison
By Arab Hafez at English Wikipedia.Later version(s) were uploaded by Skier Dude at English Wikipedia. – Own work (Original text: self-made), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36964364
United States climate zones
By Originally by User:Redtitan (Adam Peterson) – From Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_50_states_K%C3%B6ppen.svg(Puerto Rico image from here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koppen-Geiger_Map_PRI_present.svg — published with Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81751071
Geography of the United States info:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_the_United_States
Orographic effect
By Thebiologyprimer – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38717901
Amish
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amish
Amish family
By it:Utente:TheCadExpert – it:Immagine:Lancaster_County_Amish_03.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1249760
Hasidic family
By Adam Jones – Flickr: Hasidic Family in Street – Borough Park – Hasidic District – Brooklyn – New York – USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32695041
Hasidic Jews
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasidic_Judaism
Apple pie
By Scott Bauer, USDA ARS – This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K7252-47 (next)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=264106
New York pizza
By Pnickell0 – This file has been extracted from another file: New York-Style Pizza.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39886072
Philly cheesesteak
By Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA – Philly CheeseSteak at Elephant Bar.Uploaded by Josve05a, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25375303
Cranberries
By Veganbaking.net from USA – Cranberry Sauce, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35717187
BIscuits and gravy
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=495840
Pecan pie
By Joe Hakim – Flickr: Pecan Pie, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15297200

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