A mountain is a large landform that stretches above the surrounding land in a limited area usually in the form of a peak. A mountain is generally steeper than a hill. Mountains are formed through tectonic forces or volcanism. These forces can locally raise the surface of the earth by over 10,000 feet (3,000 m). Mountains erode slowly through the action of rivers, weather conditions, and glaciers. A few mountains are isolated summits, but most occur in huge mountain ranges.
High elevations on mountains produce colder climates than at sea level. These colder climates strongly affect the ecosystem of mountains: different elevations have different plants and animals. Because of the less hospitable terrain and climate, mountains tend to be used less for agriculture and more for resource extraction and recreation, such as mountain climbing.
The highest mountain on Earth is Mount Everest in the Himalayas of Asia, whose summit is 8,848 m (29,029 ft) above mean sea level. The highest known mountain on any planet in the Solar System is Olympus Mons on Mars at 21,171 m (69,459 ft).
There is no universally accepted definition of a mountain. Elevation, volume, relief, steepness, spacing and continuity have been used as criteria for defining a mountain. In the Oxford English Dictionary a mountain is defined as "a natural elevation of the earth surface rising more or less abruptly from the surrounding level and attaining an altitude which, relatively to the adjacent elevation, is impressive or notable."
Whether a landform is called a mountain may depend on local usage. The highest point in San Francisco, California, is called Mount Davidson, notwithstanding its height of 300 m (980 ft), which makes it twenty feet short of the minimum for a mountain by American designations. Similarly, Mount Scott outside Lawton, Oklahoma is only 251 m (823 ft) from its base to its highest point. Whittow's Dictionary of Physical Geography states "Some authorities regard eminences above 600 m (2,000 ft) as mountains, those below being referred to as hills."
Within Great Britain and Ireland, a mountain is now usually defined as any summit at least 2,000 feet (or 610 metres) high, whilst the official UK government's definition of a mountain is a summit of 600 metres or higher. In addition, some definitions also include a topographical prominence requirement, typically 100 feet (30 m) or 500 feet (152 m). For a while, the US defined a mountain as being 1,000 feet (304.8 m) or more tall. Any similar landform lower than this height was considered a hill. However, today, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) concludes that these terms do not have technical definitions in the US.
The UN Environmental Programme's definition of "mountainous environment" includes any of the following:
- Elevation of at least 2,500 m (8,200 ft);
- Elevation of at least 1,500 m (4,900 ft), with a slope greater than 2 degrees;
- Elevation of at least 1,000 m (3,300 ft), with a slope greater than 5 degrees;
- Elevation of at least 300 m (980 ft), with a 300 m (980 ft) elevation range within 7 km (4.3 mi).
There are three main types of mountains: volcanic, fold, and block. All three types are formed from plate tectonics: when portions of the Earth's crust move, crumple, and dive. Compressional forces, isostatic uplift and intrusion of igneous matter forces surface rock upward, creating a landform higher than the surrounding features. The height of the feature makes it either a hill or, if higher and steeper, a mountain. Major mountains tend to occur in long linear arcs, indicating tectonic plate boundaries and activity.
Volcanoes are formed when a plate is pushed below another plate, or at a mid-ocean ridge or hotspot. The downward moving plate melts, and forms magma that reaches the surface. When the magma reaches the surface, it often builds a volcanic mountain, such as a shield volcano or a stratovolcano. Examples of volcanoes include Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The magma does not have to reach the surface in order to create a mountain: magma that solidifies below ground can still form dome mountains, such as Navajo Mountain in the United States.
Fold mountains occur when two plates collide: the continental rocks then crumple together and the surface rises. Since the less dense continental crust "floats" on the denser mantle rocks beneath, the weight of any crustal material forced upward to form hills, plateaus or mountains must be balanced by the buoyancy force of a much greater volume forced downward into the mantle. Thus the continental crust is normally much thicker under mountains, compared to lower lying areas. Rock can fold either symmetrically or asymmetrically. The upfolds are anticlines and the downfolds are synclines: in asymmetric folding there may also be recumbent and overturned folds. The Jura Mountains are an example of fold mountains.
Block mountains are caused by faults in the crust: a seam where rocks can move past each other. When rocks on one side of a fault rise relative to the other, it can form a mountain. The uplifted blocks are block mountains or horsts. The intervening dropped blocks are termed graben: these can be small or form extensive rift valley systems. This form of landscape can be seen in East Africa, the Vosges, the Basin and Range province of Western North America and the Rhine valley. These areas often occur when the regional stress is extensional and the crust is thinned.
During and following uplift, mountains are subjected to the agents of erosion (water, wind, ice and gravity) which gradually wear the uplifted area down. Erosion causes the surface of mountains to be younger than the rocks that form the mountains themselves. Glacial processes produce characteristic landforms, such as pyramidal peaks, knife-edge aretes, and bowl-shaped cirques that can contain lakes. Plateau mountains, such as the Catskills, are formed from the erosion of an uplifted plateau.
Climate on mountains become colder at high elevations, due to the way that the sun heats the surface of the Earth. The sun warms the ground directly, while the greenhouse effect acts as a blanket, reflecting heat back towards the Earth that would otherwise be lost to space. The greenhouse effect thus keeps the air at low elevations warm. As elevation increases, there is less greenhouse effect, so the ambient temperature goes down.
The rate at which the temperature drops with elevation, called the environmental lapse rate, is not constant (it can fluctuate throughout the day or seasonally and also regionally), but a typical lapse rate is 5.5°C per 1,000 m (3.57°F per 1,000 ft). Therefore, moving up 100 meters on a mountain is roughly equivalent to moving 80 kilometers (45 miles or 0.75° of latitude) towards the pole. This relationship is only approximate, however, since local factors such as proximity to oceans can drastically modify the climate. As the altitude increases, the main form of precipitation becomes snow and the winds increase.
The effect of the climate on the ecology at an elevation can be largely captured through a combination of amount of precipitation, and the biotemperature, as described by Leslie Holdridge in 1947. Biotemperature is the mean temperature, where all temperatures below 0 °C (32 °F) are considered to be 0 °C. When the temperature is below 0 °C, plants are dormant, so the exact temperature is unimportant. The peaks of mountains with permanent snow can have a biotemperature below 1.5 °C (34.7 °F).
The colder climate on mountains affects the plants and animals residing on mountains. A particular set of plants and animals tend to be adapted to a relatively narrow range of climate. Thus, ecosystems tend to lie along elevation bands of roughly constant climate. This is called altitudinal zonation. In regions with dry climates, the tendency of mountains to have higher precipitation as well as lower temperatures also provides for varying conditions, which enhances zonation.
Some plants and animals found in altitudinal zones tend to become isolated since the conditions above and below a particular zone will be inhospitable and thus constrain their movements or dispersal. These isolated ecological systems are known as sky islands.
Altitudinal zones tend to follow a typical pattern. At the highest elevations, trees cannot grow, and whatever life may be present will be of the alpine type, resembling tundra. Just below the tree line, one may find subalpine forests of needleleaf trees, which can withstand cold, dry conditions. Below that, montane forests grow. In the temperate portions of the earth, those forests tend to be needleleaf trees, while in the tropics, they can be broadleaf trees growing in a rain forest.
Mountains are generally less preferable for human habitation than lowlands, because of harsh weather and little level ground suitable for agriculture. While 7% of the land area of Earth is above 2,500 metres (8,200 ft), only 140 million people live above that altitude and only 20-30 million people above 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) elevation. The decreasing atmospheric pressure with increasing elevation means that less oxygen is available for breathing, and there is less protection against solar radiation (UV). Due to decreasing oxygen, the highest known permanent habitation in the world is at 5,100 metres (16,700 ft), while the highest known permanently tolerable altitude is at 5,950 metres (19,520 ft). Above 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) elevation, there is not enough oxygen to support human life. This is known as the " death zone". The summits of Mount Everest and K2 are in the death zone.
About half of mountain dwellers live in the Andes, Central Asia, and Africa. Traditional mountain societies rely on agriculture, with higher risk of crop failure than at lower elevations. Minerals often occur in mountains, with mining being an important component of the economics of some montane societies. More recently, tourism supports mountain communities, with some intensive development around attrations such as national parks or ski resorts. About 80% of mountain people live below the poverty line.
Most of the world's rivers are fed from mountain sources, with snow acting as a storage mechanism for downstream users. More than half of humanity depends on mountains for water.
Mountaineering, mountain climbing, or alpinism is the sport, hobby or profession of hiking, skiing, and climbing mountains. While mountaineering began as attempts to reach the highest point of unclimb|ed big mountains it has branched into specializations that address different aspects of the mountain and consists of three areas: rock-craft, snow-craft and skiing, depending on whether the route chosen is over rock, snow or ice. All require experience, athletic ability, and technical knowledge to maintain safety.