What is a Plateau?

Yaks are seen here in the Tibetan Plateau.

A plateau is part of the earth surface which is considerably higher than its surroundings and has a relatively flattened extensive surface. Plateaus are either formed as a result of natural forces of glacial erosion, volcanic activity or movement of tectonic plates. All of the earth’s seven continents have many of these geological features. The Tibetan Plateau in western China is both the world’s largest and highest plateau.


One example of a plateau in Africa is the Ethiopian Highlands, situated in northeastern Africa. The Ethiopian Highlands form the largest plateau in the continent. The average elevation of the Ethiopian Highlands is more than 4,921 feet, with its summit, Ras Dashan having an elevation of 14,930 feet. The Ethiopian Highlands were formed about 75 million years ago after sub-terrestrial magma began pushing the earth’s crust upwards. Another African plateau is the Highveld, an immense plateau located in South Africa. The Highveld covers a total area of 0.2 million square miles (equivalent to about 30% of South Africa’s total land area), making it the second-largest plateau in Africa. The highest point of the Highveld has an elevation of about 2,100 meters above sea level.


Asia is home to many of the world’s largest plateaus including Deosai Plateau, the Tibetan Plateau, the Iranian Plateau, the Deccan Plateau, and the Mongolian Plateau. The Tibetan Plateau is the largest plateau in the world, covering a total area of 0.97 million square miles and stretches 1,600 miles in length and 620 miles in width. Also known as the Qingzang Plateau, the Tibetan Plateau is situated in western China and also covers the northern part of India as well as Tibet. The Tibetan Plateau was formed as a result of the collision of the Eurasian and Indo-Australian tectonic Plates during the Upper Cretaceous period. The Armenian Plateau is another plateau in Asia, situated in the western part of the continent. The Armenian Plateau covers an area of over 0.154 million square miles, and its highest point, Mt. Ararat, has an elevation of 16,854 feet. Another plateau in Asia is the Iranian Plateau which covers Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The Iranian Plateau which is also known as the Persian Plateau is made up of the Eastern Iranian Ranges, the Central Iranian Plateau, the Balochistan, and the Northwest Iran Ranges. The Deccan Plateau is situated in southern region of India, bordered by the Western and Eastern Ghats (two high mountain ranges), and the Narmada River.


Hardangervidda is a major plateau in Europe and is the continent’s largest plateau. The plateau is situated in southern Norway and covers 1,321 square miles. Hardangervidda encompasses three Norwegian counties; Telemark, Buskerud, and Hordaland. The plateau has an average elevation of 3,500 feet and its summit, Sandfloegga, has an elevation of 5,646 feet. Due to low temperatures caused by the plateau’s high elevation, Hardangervidda experiences an alpine climate and has one of Norway’s largest glaciers; Hardangerjokulen.


Australia has the highest number of plateaus of any country in Oceania, a feat made possible by its large land area. The Western Plateau is the largest of Australia’s plateaus and covers hundreds of thousands of square miles (some estimates place its size at par to the entire continental Europe). The Western Plateau is situated in the western region of the country and is also known as the Australian Shield. Another plateau in Oceania is the North Island Volcanic Plateau, one of New Zealand’s largest plateaus. As the plateau’s name suggests, the North Island Volcanic Plateau was formed by volcanic activity on the island and resulted in the formation of many volcanic features on the plateau including an immense crater lake known as Lake Taupo which is New Zealand’s largest lake.


Despite being covered in perpetual ice, Antarctica is also home to a plateau; the Antarctic Plateau. The Antarctic Plateau is among the largest plateaus in the world, and the largest in Antarctica, as it has a diameter of about 620 miles. Also known as the Polar Plateau, the Antarctic Plateau is situated in the eastern region of the continent. Unlike other plateaus in the world, the Antarctic Plateau is primarily made up of ice caps which are several miles in depth. The average elevation of the plateau is about 9,800 feet. The Antarctic Plateau is a perfect example of a continental plateau. The Earth’s geographic South Pole is located on the Antarctic Plateau, as well as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The Antarctic Plateau experiences some of the harshest weather conditions on earth, with its below-zero temperatures only compared to those experienced in the Arctic.

North America

North America has several plateaus, some of which are the largest in the world. One example is the Colorado Plateau, the largest of its kind in the United States. The Colorado Plateau is situated in the southwestern United States and covers a total area of 130,000 square miles. The plateau partially occupies the states of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. The Colorado Plateau is made up of six sections which are the High Plateaus Section, the Navajo Section, the Uinta Basin Section, the Grand Canyon Section, the Datil Section, and the Canyon Lands Section.

South America

Some plateaus found in South America include the Altiplano Cundiboyacense and the Andean Plateau. The Andean Plateau is the largest high plateau in the western hemisphere and is the second-largest high plateau in the world. Also known as the Altiplano, the Andean Plateau covers Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Argentina. The plateau has an average elevation of 12,300 feet, which is only surpassed by the Tibetan Plateau. The Altiplano Cundiboyacense is a plateau situated in South America which covers an area of 9,653 square miles. This plateau has an average elevation of 8,500 feet, with its highest point being 13,123 feet in altitude.

Formation of Plateaus

There are different processes which lead to the formation of plateaus. The most common process is volcanic activity whereby surging magma from beneath the earth’s crust causes the ground to swell and form plateaus. The North Island Plateau in New Zealand is an example of a volcanic plateau. Other plateaus are formed as a result of the erosion of mountains either through glacial erosion or water erosion.


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