The geography of Mexico entails the physical and human geography of Mexico, a country situated in the Americas.
Comprising much of southern North America, also Mexico is described comprising much of northern Middle
America, Mexico is bounded to the north by the United States (specifically, from west to east, by California,
Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, to the east by the Gulf of Mexico, and
to the southeast by Belize, Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea. The northernmost constituent of Latin America, it
is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world.
Almost all of Mexico is on the North American Plate, with parts of the Baja California Peninsula in the northwest
on the Pacific and Cocos Plates. Some geographers include the portion east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec
within Central America. This portion includes the five states of Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, Quintana Roo, and
Yucatán, representing 12.1% of the country's total area. Alternatively, the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt may be said
to delimit the region physiographically on the north. Geopolitically, Mexico is generally not considered part of
Central America and its southeastern border delimits the region.
Geography of Mexico
Total 1,972,550 km²
Land 1,923,040 km²
Water 49,510 km²
Latitude 23°0' N
United States 3,141 km
Guatemala 871 km
Belize 251 km
Coastlines 9,330 km
Contiguous zone 24
nautical miles (44 km)
Economic zone 200
nautical miles (370 km)
Territorial sea 12 nautical
miles (22 km)
|Topographic map of Mexico, exhibiting major population centres
As well as numerous
Mexican territory includes
the more remote Isla
Guadalupe and the Islas
Revillagigedo in the Pacific
Ocean. Mexico's total area
covers 1,972,550 square
square kilometers of
islands in the Pacific
Ocean, Gulf of Mexico,
Caribbean Sea, and Gulf
of California (see the
map.) On its north, Mexico
shares a 5000-kilometer
border with the United
States. The meandering
Río Bravo del Norte
(known as the Rio Grande
in the United States)
defines the border from
Ciudad Juárez east to the
Gulf of Mexico. A series of
natural and artificial
markers delineate the
border west from Ciudad
Juárez to the Pacific
Ocean. On its south,
Mexico shares an 871
kilometer border with
Guatemala and a
251-kilometer border with
Mexico has a 9,330 kilometer coastline, of which 7,338 kilometers face the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California, and the remaining 2,805 kilometers front the Gulf of
Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Mexico's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles (370 km) off each coast, covers approximately 2.7 million square
kilometers. The landmass of Mexico dramatically narrows as it moves in a southeasterly direction from the United States border and then abruptly curves northward before
ending in the 500-kilometer-long Yucatán Peninsula. Indeed, the state capital of Yucatán, Mérida, is farther north than Mexico City or Guadalajara.
|Mexico rests mostly in the North American Plate
Beginning approximately 50 kilometers from the United States border, the Sierra Madre Occidental extends 5000
kilometers south to the Río Santiago, where it merges with the Cordillera Neovolcánica range that runs east-west
across central Mexico. The Sierra Madre Occidental lies approximately 300 kilometers inland from the west coast
of Mexico at its northern end but approaches to within fifty kilometers of the coast near the Cordillera
Neovolcánica. The northwest coastal plain is the name given the lowland area between the Sierra Madre
Occidental and the Gulf of California. The Sierra Madre Occidental averages 2,250 meters in elevation, with peaks
reaching 3,000 meters.
|Pico de Orizaba is the third highest
peak in North America and highest in
The Mexican altiplano, stretching from the United States border to the
Cordillera Neovolcánica, occupies the vast expanse of land between
the eastern and western sierra madres. A low east-west range divides
the altiplano into northern and southern sections. These two sections,
previously called the Mesa del Norte and Mesa Central, are now
regarded by geographers as sections of one altiplano. The northern
altiplano averages 1,100 meters in elevation and continues south from
the Río Bravo del Norte through the states of Zacatecas and San Luis
Potosí. Various narrow, isolated ridges cross the plateaus of the
northern altiplano. Numerous depressions dot the region, the largest
of which is the Bolsón de Mapimí. The southern altiplano is higher than
its northern counterpart, averaging 2,000 meters in elevation. The
southern altiplano contains numerous valleys originally formed by
ancient lakes. Several of Mexico's most prominent cities, including
Mexico City and Guadalajara, are located in the valleys of the southern
The Sierra Madre Oriental starts at the Big Bend region of the border with the U.S. state of Texas and continues
1,350 kilometers until reaching Cofre de Perote, one of the major peaks of the Cordillera Neovolcánica. As is the
case with the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Sierra Madre Oriental comes progressively closer to the coastline as it
approaches its southern terminus, reaching to within 75 kilometers of the Gulf of Mexico. The northeast coastal
plain extends from the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental to the Gulf of Mexico. The median elevation of
the Sierra Madre Oriental is 2,200 meters, with some peaks at 3,000 meters.
One other significant mountain range, the Peninsular Ranges, cuts across the landscape of the northern half of
Mexico. A southern extension of the California coastal ranges that parallel California's coast, the Mexican portion
of the Peninsular Ranges extends from the United States border to the southern tip of the Baja California
Peninsula, a distance of 1,430 kilometers. Peaks in the California system range in altitude from 2,200 meters in
the north to only 250 meters near La Paz in the south. Narrow lowlands are found on the Pacific Ocean and the
Gulf of California sides of the mountains.The Cordillera Neovolcánica is a belt 900 kilometers long and 130
kilometers wide, extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The Cordillera Neovolcánica begins at
the Río Grande de Santiago and continues south to Colima, where it turns east along the nineteenth parallel to
the central portion of the state of Veracruz. The region is distinguished by considerable seismic activity and
contains Mexico's highest volcanic peaks. This range contains three peaks exceeding 5,000 meters: Pico de
Orizaba (Citlaltépetl)--the third highest mountain in North America--and Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl near Mexico
City. The Cordillera Neovolcánica is regarded as the geological dividing line between North America and Central
Several important mountain ranges dominate the landscape of southern and southeastern Mexico. The Sierra
Madre del Sur extends 1,200 kilometers along Mexico's southern coast from the southwestern part of the
Cordillera Neovolcánica to the nearly flat isthmus of Tehuantepec. Mountains in this range average 2,000 meters
in elevation. The range averages 100 kilometers in width, but widens to 150 kilometers in the state of Oaxaca.
The narrow southwest coastal plain extends from the Sierra Madre del Sur to the Pacific Ocean. The Sierra Madre
de Oaxaca begins at Pico de Orizaba and extends in a southeasterly direction for 300 kilometers until reaching
the isthmus of Tehuantepec. Peaks in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca average 2,500 meters in elevation, with some
peaks exceeding 3,000 meters. South of the isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas runs 280
kilometers along the Pacific Coast from the Oaxaca-Chiapas border to Mexico's border with Guatemala. Although average elevation is only 1,500 meters, one peak--Volcán de Tacuma--exceeds 4,000
meters in elevation. Finally, the Meseta Central de Chiapas extends 250 kilometers through the central part of Chiapas to Guatemala. The average height of peaks of the Meseta Central de Chiapas is
2,000 meters. The Chiapas central valley separates the Meseta Central de Chiapas and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.
Mexico has nearly 150 rivers, two-thirds of which empty into the Pacific Ocean and the remainder of which flow into the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea. Despite this apparent abundance of water,
water volume is unevenly distributed throughout the country. Indeed, five rivers--the Usumacinta, Grijalva, Papaloapán, Coatzacoalcos, and Pánuco--account for 52 % of Mexico's average annual
volume of surface water. All five rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico; only the Río Pánuco is outside southeastern Mexico, which contains approximately 15 % of national territory and 12 % of the national
population. In contrast, northern and central Mexico, with 47 % of the national area and almost 60 % of Mexico's population, have less than 10 % of the country's water resources.
|Watersheds of Mexico. Basins in blue drain to the Pacific, in brown to the Gulf of Mexico, and in yellow to the Caribbean Sea. Grey indicates interior basins that do not
drain to the sea.
Situated atop three of the
large tectonic plates that
constitute the earth's
surface, Mexico is one of
the most seismologically
active regions on earth.
The motion of these
Most of the Mexican
landmass rests on the
westward moving North
American plate. The
Pacific Ocean floor off
however, is being carried
northeast by the
underlying motion of the
Cocos Plate. Ocean floor
material is relatively
dense; when it strikes
the lighter granite of the
Mexican landmass, the
ocean floor is forced
under the landmass,
creating the deep Middle
America Trench that lies
off Mexico's southern
coast. The westward
moving land atop the
North American plate is
slowed and crumpled
where it meets the
Cocos plate, creating the
mountain ranges of
southern Mexico. The
subduction of the Cocos
plate accounts for the
Mexico's southern coast.
As the rocks constituting
the ocean floor are
forced down, they melt,
and the molten material
is forced up through weaknesses in the surface rock, creating the volcanoes in the Cordillera Neovolcánica across central Mexico.
Areas of Mexico's coastline on the Gulf of California, including the Baja California Peninsula, are riding northwestward on the Pacific plate. Rather than one plate subducting, the Pacific and North
American plates grind past each other, creating a slip fault that is the southern extension of the San Andreas fault in California. Motion along this fault in the past pulled Baja California away from the
coast, creating the Gulf of California. Continued motion along this fault is the source of earthquakes in western Mexico.
Mexico has a long history of destructive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In September 1985, an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale and centered in the subduction zone off Acapulco
killed more than 4,000 people in Mexico City, more than 300 kilometers away. Volcán de Colima, south of Guadalajara, erupted in 1994, and El Chichón, in southern Mexico, underwent a violent
eruption in 1983. Parícutin in northwest Mexico began as puffs of smoke in a cornfield in 1943; a decade later the volcano was 2,700 meters high. Although dormant for decades, Popocatépetl and
Iztaccíhuatl ("smoking warrior" and "white lady," respectively, in Nahuatl) occasionally send out puffs of smoke clearly visible in Mexico City, a reminder to the capital's inhabitants that volcanic activity is
near. Popocatépetl showed renewed activity in 1995 and 1996, forcing the evacuation of several nearby villages and causing concern by seismologists and government officials about the effect that a
large-scale eruption might have on the heavily populated region nearby.
The Tropic of Cancer effectively divides the country into temperate and tropical zones. Land north of the twenty-fourth parallel experiences cooler temperatures during the winter months. South of the
twenty-fourth parallel, temperatures are fairly constant year round and vary solely as a function of elevation.
Areas south of the twentieth-fourth parallel with elevations up to 1,000 meters (the southern parts of both coastal plains as well as the Yucatán Peninsula), have a yearly median temperature between
24°C and 28°C. Temperatures here remain high throughout the year, with only a 5°C difference between winter and summer median temperatures. Although low-lying areas north of the
twentieth-fourth parallel are hot and humid during the summer, they generally have lower yearly temperature averages (from 20°C to 24°C) because of more moderate conditions during the winter.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, one encounters yearly average temperatures between 16°C and 20°C. Towns and cities at this elevation south of the twenty-fourth parallel have relatively constant,
pleasant temperatures throughout the year, whereas more northerly locations experience sizeable seasonal variations. Above 2,000 meters, temperatures drop as low as an average yearly range
between 8°C and 12°C in the Cordillera Neovolcánica. At 2,300 meters, Mexico City has a yearly median temperature of 15°C with pleasant summers and mild winters. Average daily highs and lows for
May, the warmest month, are 26°C and 12°C, and average daily highs and lows for January, the coldest month, are 19°C and 6°C.
Rainfall varies widely both by location and season. Arid or semiarid conditions are encountered in the Baja California Peninsula, the northwestern state of Sonora, the northern altiplano, and also
significant portions of the southern altiplano. Rainfall in these regions averages between 300 and 600 millimeters per year, although even less in some areas, particularly in Baja California Norte.
Average rainfall totals are between 600 and 1,000 millimeters in most of the major populated areas of the southern altiplano, including Mexico City and Guadalajara. Low-lying areas along the Gulf of
Mexico receive in excess of 1,000 millimeters of rainfall in an average year, with the wettest region being the southeastern state of Tabasco, which typically receives approximately 2,000 millimeters of
rainfall on an annual basis. Parts of the northern altiplano and high peaks in the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental occasionally receive significant snowfalls.
Mexico has pronounced wet and dry seasons. Most of the country experiences a rainy season from June to mid-October and significantly less rain during the remainder of the year. February and July
generally are the driest and wettest months, respectively. Mexico City, for example, receives an average of only 5 millimeters of rain during February but more than 160 millimeters in July. Coastal
areas, especially those along the Gulf of Mexico, experience the largest amounts of rain in September. Tabasco typically records more than 300 millimeters of rain during that month. A small coastal
area of northwestern coastal Mexico around Tijuana has a Mediterranean climate with considerable coastal fog and a rainy season that occurs in winter.
Mexico lies squarely within the hurricane belt, and all regions of both coasts are susceptible to these storms from June through November. Hurricanes on the Pacific coast are less frequent and often
less violent than those affecting Mexico's eastern coastline. Several hurricanes per year strike the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico coastline, however, and these storms bring high winds, heavy rain,
extensive damage, and occasional loss of life. Hurricane Gilbert passed directly over Cancún in September 1988, with winds in excess of 200 kilometers per hour, producing major damage to hotels
in the resort area. It then struck northeast Mexico, where flooding from the heavy rain killed dozens in the Monterrey area and caused extensive damage to livestock and vegetable crops.
Mexico faces significant environmental challenges affecting almost every section of
the country. Vast expanses of southern and southeastern tropical forests have been
denuded for cattle-raising and agriculture. For example, tropical forests covered
almost half of the state of Tabasco in 1940 but less than 10% by the late 1980s.
During the same period, pastureland increased from 20 to 60% of the state's total
area. Analysts reported similar conditions in other tropical sections of Mexico.
Deforestation has contributed to serious levels of soil erosion nationwide. In 1985
the government classified almost 17% of all land as totally eroded, 31% in an
accelerated state of erosion, and 38% demonstrating signs of incipient erosion.
Mexico has developed a Biodiversity Action Plan to address issues of endangered
species and habitats that merit protection.
Soil destruction is particularly pronounced in the north and northwest, with more
than 60% of land considered in a total or accelerated state of erosion. Fragile
because of its semiarid and arid character, the soil of the region has become
increasingly damaged through excessive cattle-raising and irrigation with waters
containing high levels of salinity. The result is a mounting problem of desertification
throughout the region.
Mexico's vast coastline faces a different, but no less difficult, series of environmental
problems. For example, inadequately regulated petroleum exploitation in the
Coatzacoalcos-Minatitlán zone in the Gulf of Mexico has caused serious damage to
the waters and fisheries of Río Coatzacoalcos. The deadly explosion that racked a
working-class neighborhood in Guadalajara in April 1992 serves as an appropriate
symbol of environmental damage in Mexico. More than 1,000 barrels of gasoline
seeped from a corroded Mexican Petroleum (Petróleos Mexicanos--Pemex) pipeline
into the municipal sewer system, where it combined with gases and industrial
residuals to produce a massive explosion that killed 190 persons and injured
nearly 1,500 others.
Mexico City confronts authorities with perhaps their most daunting environmental challenge. Geography and extreme population levels have combined to produce one of the world's most polluted
urban areas. Mexico City sits in a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains, which serve to trap contaminants produced by the metropolitan area's 15 million residents. One government study in
the late 1980s determined that nearly 5 million tons of contaminants were emitted annually in the atmosphere, a tenfold increase over the previous decade. Carbons and hydrocarbons from the
region's more than 3 million vehicles account for approximately 80% of these contaminants, with another 15%, primarily of sulfur and nitrogen, coming from industrial plants. The resulting dangerous
mix is responsible for a wide range of respiratory illnesses. One study of twelve urban areas worldwide in the mid-1980s concluded that the residents of Mexico City had the highest levels of lead and
cadmium in their blood. The volume of pollutants from Mexico City has damaged the surrounding ecosystem as well. For example, wastewater from Mexico City that flows north and is used for
irrigation in the state of Hidalgo (state) has been linked to congenital birth defects and high levels of gastrointestinal diseases in that state.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the government enacted numerous antipollution policies in Mexico City with varied degrees of success. Measures such as vehicle emissions inspections, the introduction
of unleaded gasoline, and the installation of catalytic converters on new vehicles helped reduce pollution generated by trucks and buses. In contrast, one of the government's most prominent actions,
the No Driving Day program, may have inadvertently contributed to higher pollution levels. Under the program, metropolitan area residents were prohibited from driving their vehicles one day each work
week based on the last number of their license plate. However, those with the resources to do so purchased additional automobiles to use on the day their principal vehicle was prohibited from driving,
thus adding to the region's vehicle stock. Thermal inversions reached such dangerous levels at various times in the mid-1990s that the government declared pollution emergencies, necessitating
sharp temporary cutbacks in vehicle use and industrial production.
Climate: varies from tropical to desert.
Terrain: high, rugged mountains; low coastal plains; high plateaus; desert.
lowest point: Laguna Salada -10 m
highest point: Pico de Orizaba volcano 5,610 m
Natural resources: petroleum, silver, copper, gold, lead, zinc, natural gas and timber.
arable land: 12%
permanent crops: 1%
permanent pastures: 39%
forests and woodland: 26%
other: 22% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 61,000 km² (1993 est.)
Natural hazards: Tsunamis along the Pacific coast, volcanoes and destructive earthquakes
in the center and south, and hurricanes on the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean coasts.
Environment – current issues: Natural fresh water resources scarce and polluted in north,
inaccessible and poor quality in center and extreme southeast; raw sewage and industrial
effluents polluting rivers in urban areas; deforestation; widespread erosion; desertification;
serious air pollution in the national capital and urban centers along the US-Mexico border.
Environment – international agreements: Party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change,
Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine
Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship
Pollution, Wetlands, Whaling and Kyoto Protocol.