Guatemala: Natural and Geographic Landscape

Guatemala: Natural and Geographic Landscape

Mon, 10/03/2022 - 21:32
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Guatemala is the third-largest country in Central America. Situated in a geologically active region, its geography is characterized by three major geographic regions or zones: the Petén lowlands, the Guatemalan highlands, and the Pacific coast flatlands.

Geography of Guatemala

Located in northern Central America, Guatemala is bounded to the north and west by Mexico, to the northeast by Belize and the Gulf of Honduras (a gulf of the Caribbean Sea), to the east by Honduras, to the southeast by El Salvador and the south by the Pacific Ocean.

Guatemala is the third-largest country in Central America, occupying approximately 108,890 sq km (42,043 sq mi). However, Guatemala has long laid claim to territory held by Belize and the territorial dispute is still unresolved after many years.

Volcanism

Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Guatemala is situated in a geologically-active region with frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. Of the 288 volcanic structures in the country, approximately 37 are considered volcanoes, with three classified as highly-active:

  • Santiaguito/Santa María: 2,500 m (8,202 ft)

  • Fuego: 3,835 m (12,582 ft)

  • Pacaya: 2,552 m (8,371 ft)

Guatemala is located in a complex tectonic setting influenced by the interaction of three tectonic plates: the North American Plate to the north, the Caribbean Plate to the south, and the Cocos Plate to the southwest.

The country is divided into four important faults: the Motagua fault, the Jalpatagua fault, the Chixoy-Polochic fault, and the Jocotán-Chamelecón fault.

The highest peak in Central America is Volcán Tajumulco in western Guatemala at 4,220 m (13,845 ft). It is part of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas which begins in southern Mexico. Most of the volcanoes of Guatemala, part of the Central America Volcanic Arc, are within the range.

The historic city of Antigua Guatemala is situated perilously close to three volcanoes: Volcán Agua at 3,760 m (12,350 ft), Volcán Fuego at 3,763 m (12,336 ft), and Volcán Acatenango at 3,976 m (13,045 ft) asl.

Map of Central America

Location map of the countries of Central America

The Natural and Geographic Landscape of Guatemala

Geographic Zones

The surface of Guatemala is characterized by three major topographical features that can also be defined as geographic regions or zones:

A fourth minor zone can also be defined:

  • The Caribbean coast

The northern third of Guatemala is a vast limestone flatland known as Petén. Once covered entirely in tropical forests, it has increasingly become deforested in its southern parts with only the northern third retaining large unbroken swaths of forest.

Southern Guatemala is dominated by a string of volcanoes that extend for approximately 300 km (180 mi) between Mexico and El Salvador. Between the volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean lies a fertile plain ranging from 40 - 50 km (25 - 30 mi) in width.

Topographic map of Guatemala

Topographic map of Guatemala

Petén Lowlands

The Petén region is a large, low-lying basin in northern Guatemala that occupies a portion of the Yucatán Peninsula, a limestone platform shared with Mexico and Belize. The region constitutes more than one-third of the country’s territory.

In the Petén, a dense rainforest is interspersed with patches of savanna grasslands. The area contains few rivers as most of the rainfall drains underground.

Guatemalan Highlands

Lying between the highly volcanic Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south and the Petén lowlands to the north is an upland region known as the Guatemalan Highlands which is made up of a series of high valleys enclosed by mountains.

The highest slopes of the sierras are forested with oak and pine. Throughout these volcanic highlands, however, stands of pine, fir, and oak have been largely destroyed.

The northern chain of mountains is known as the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes which is Guatemala’s, and Central America’s, highest mountain chain. It stretches eastward where it becomes known as the Sierra de Chama and eventually the Sierra del Santa Cruz.

The northern and southern mountains are separated by the Motagua valley, where the Motagua River and its tributaries drain into the Gulf of Honduras.

From Guatemala City, east toward Honduras, the terrain is primarily dominated by semiarid flatlands, covered in cacti.

The area to the north of Guatemala City is largely mountainous and primarily composed of limestone. A unique feature of this area, found in its northern limits, is the presence of small, forested limestone hills. Here, the Sierra de las Minas mountain range runs east-west through the highlands.

Eighteen major rivers originate in the highlands region.

Geographical regions / relief map of Guatemala

Geographical regions/relief map of Guatemala

Pacific Coast Flatlands

In the south of the country, running roughly parallel to the highlands, are the Pacific coast flatlands or southern lowlands.

From the base of the volcanic row of the highlands, the Pacific coastal plain gradually slopes south to sea level at the ocean shoreline. The plain extends east-west for a distance of about 240 km (150 mi) and is one of the country’s richest agricultural areas.

Here, the landscape largely has been cleared of its tropical forest and savanna. This rich, agricultural area now hosts vast sugarcane and coffee plantations. Coffee growing is especially prevalent on the slopes of the highland zones as they descend into the coastal plain.

The Pacific Coast is also home to wetlands, mangrove swamps, and dark-sand beaches, due to their proximity to the country’s volcanic chain.

Caribbean Coast

Close to the Caribbean coast, in the department of Izabal, the terrain becomes lush and primarily composed of banana plantations.

Small mountains are interspersed throughout parts of the Caribbean coastal region.

A small sliver of Caribbean coastline runs between the Honduran border and Belize. The area features white-sand beaches, swampland, and tropical rainforests.

Bodies of Water

Lakes

Guatemala has about 20 lakes of varying sizes and environmental settings. Of the 20 lakes, 5 are significant:

  • Lago de Izabal: also known as the Golfo Dulce, the largest lake in Guatemala

  • Lago El Golfete: long and narrow, drains to the Caribbean Sea

  • Lago de Atitlán: in a spectacular setting in the Guatemalan Highlands

  • Lago Petén Itza: in the northern Petén Department

  • Lago de Amatitlán: in the south-central highlands

Rivers

The east-flowing Motagua River and west-flowing Cuilco River pass in opposite directions between the volcanic terrain of southern Guatemala and the sierras of its midsection.

The sierra region is drained by large rivers that flow primarily north into the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Usumacinta River.

The 400-km- (250-mile-) long Motagua River is the longest of a series of rivers draining eastward toward the Caribbean Sea.

Several small rivers drain into the Pacific Ocean. Much of the Petén region is drained by the subsurface flow of water.

Regions map of Guatemala

Regions map of Guatemala

Natural Regions

Guatemala hosts a diverse range of habitats that include lowlands, coastlines, valleys, mountains, and deserts. There are many lakes, rivers, swamps, and lagoons.

Located within the tropics and with elevations ranging between sea level and more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft), the country experiences a diversity of climates that varies depending on the region, ranging from hot and moist to cool and dry.

Biomes

Tropical Humid Forest

This biome is characterized by its poor soils but exuberant jungles and very diverse fauna.

In general, it is defined by a hot and humid climate and no clear difference between the rainy season and the dry season.

Vegetation includes high- and low-altitude forests, savanna, and wetlands systems. The dominant vegetation type is broad-leaved trees along with some pines (Pinus caribbea).

Representative avifauna includes Ocellated Turkey, Yucatan Flycatcher, White-browed Wren, Black-throated Shrike-tanager, and Rose-throated Tanager.

Tropical Rainforest

Although similar to the Humid Tropical Forest, rainfall and humidity here are much higher and the vegetation is more complex. The prevailing climate is hot and humid. Although the dry season of summer is not very defined, more rain can be expected between June and October.

In this biome, there are several ecosystems, including high evergreen forests, savannahs, and associated grasslands, mangroves, and estuaries. The dominant vegetation is broadleaf trees, although there are some associations of pines (Pinus caribea and P. oocarpa).

The avifauna includes the Orange-breasted Falcon, White-crowned Pigeon, White-collared Manakin, Snowy Cotinga, Gray-headed Tanager, Olive-backed Euphonia, Golden-winged Warbler, and Green-backed Sparrow.

Cloud Forest

Located on mountain slopes, there is great complexity in this biome's floristic composition.

This habitat presents wide biodiversity and associated vegetation (avocados, pine, oaks, and tree ferns). The understory is composed of a variety of plants and mosses located in different strata, conferring a high complexity.

The climate is temperate and humid during the day and nights can be somewhat cold. The high level of rain is characteristic of this biome, occurring generally between April and September.

The avifauna includes Horned Guan, Highland Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Belted Flycatcher, and Pink Headed Warbler.

Chaparral or Thorn Dry Scrub

This is one of the most fragile biomes, with less representation in the protected areas system. It has a discontinuous distribution through the central-eastern region of the country.

It occurs in valleys surrounded by mountains that generate the phenomenon known as a rain shadow, creating dry zones as a consequence. Vegetation includes abundant cactus and thorn plants.

This biome experiences a short but well-marked rainy season between June to October.

The avifauna includes Lesser Ground-cuckoo, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Russet-crowned Motmot, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Cinnamon Hummingbird, White-lored Gnatcatcher and Altamira Oriole.

Mountain Forest

Here the influence of the North American region is evident in its biodiversity. The climate is usually cold and the seasons are related to northern latitudes.

The biome has few species, with only one stratum differentiated and a very poor forest understory. However, several endemic plants and fauna can be found in this biome, which occupies all the central highlands of the country.

The avifauna includes the White-breasted Hawk, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Goldsman's Warbler, Pine Siskin, and Guatemalan Junco.

Tropical Humid Savannah

This biome is located along the Pacific Coast and experiences predominantly warm weather.

The original vegetation (deciduous forest, evergreen forest, savannas, and mangroves) has been transformed and replaced by agricultural landscapes, although in some areas remnants remain of the original vegetation.

The avifauna includes the Common Black-Hawk, White-bellied Chachalaca, Pacific Parakeet, Violet Sabrewing, and Long-tailed Manakin.

Subtropical Humid Forest

This biome is located in the Pacific region and runs through the slopes of the volcanic chain. Vegetation is diverse.

Temperatures are moderately warm and the volcanic chain serves as a wind barrier for the humid winds that come from the south. However, this biome experiences a high amount of precipitation.

The avifauna includes the Red-throated Parakeet, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Azure-rumped Tanager, and Prevost's Ground Sparrow.

Ecological Regions

The following is a list of ecoregions in Guatemala, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Guatemala is in the Neotropical realm. Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate.

Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests

  • Central American Atlantic moist forests

  • Central American montane forests

  • Chiapas montane forests

  • Petén-Veracruz moist forests

  • Yucatán moist forests

Tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests

  • Central American dry forests

  • Chiapas Depression dry forests

Tropical and subtropical coniferous forests

  • Central American pine-oak forests

Deserts and xeric shrublands

  • Motagua Valley thorn scrub

Mangroves

  • Belizean Coast mangroves

  • Northern Honduras mangroves

  • Northern Dry Pacific Coast mangroves