Canyon | National Geographic Society (2023)

A canyon is a deep, narrow valley with steep sides. “

Canyon

” comes from the Spanish word cañon, which means “tube” or “pipe.” The term “gorge” is often used to mean “

canyon

,” but a

gorge

is almost always

steeper

and narrower than a

canyon

.

The movement of rivers, the processes of weathering and erosion, and tectonic activity create

canyons

.

River Canyons

The most familiar type of

canyon

is probably the

river

canyon

. The water pressure of a

river

can cut deep into a river bed. Sediments from the

river

bed

are carried downstream, creating a deep, narrow channel.

Rivers

that lie at the bottom of deep

canyons

are known as entrenched rivers. They are entrenched because, unlike

rivers

in wide, flat flood plains, they do not meander and change their course.

The Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon in Tibet, a region of southwestern China, was formed over millions of years by the Yarlung Zangbo

River

. This

canyon

is the deepest in the world—at some points extending more than 5,300 meters (17,490 feet) from top to bottom. Yarlung Zangbo

Canyon

is also one of the world’s longest

canyons

, at about 500 kilometers (310 miles).

Weathering and Erosion

Weathering

and

erosion

also contribute to the formation of

canyons

. In winter, water seeps into cracks in the rock. This water freezes. As water freezes, it expands and turns into ice.

Ice

forces the cracks to become larger and larger, eroding bits of stone in the process. During brief, heavy rains, water rushes down the cracks, eroding even more rocks and stone. As more rocks crumble and fall, the

canyon

grows wider at the top than at the bottom.

When this process happens in soft rock, such as sandstone, it can lead to the development of slot canyons.

Slot

canyons

are very narrow and deep. Sometimes, a

slot

canyon

can be less than a meter (3 feet) wide, but hundreds of meters deep.

Slot

canyons

can be dangerous. Their sides are usually very smooth and difficult to climb.

Some

canyons

with hard, underlying rock may develop cliffs and ledges after their softer, surface rock erodes. These ledges look like giant steps.

Sometimes, entire civilizations can develop on and around these

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canyon

ledges. Native American nations, such as the Hopi and Sinagua, made

cliff

dwellings.

Cliff

dwellings

were apartment-style shelters that housed hundreds of people. The shaded, elevated ledges in Walnut

Canyon

and

Canyon

de Chelly, in Arizona, provided protection from hostile neighbors and the burning desert sun.

Hard-rock

canyons

that are open at one end are called box canyons. The

Hopi

and Navajo people often used

box

canyons

as natural corrals for sheep and cattle. They simply built a gate on the open side of the

box

canyon

, and closed it when the animals were inside.

Limestone is a type of hard rock often found in

canyons

. Sometimes,

limestone

erodes and forms caves beneath the earth. As the ceilings of these

caves

collapse,

canyons

form. The Yorkshire Dales, an area in northern England, is a collection of

river

valleys

and

canyons

created by

limestone

cave

collapses.

Tectonic Uplift

Canyons

are also formed by

tectonic activity

. As tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s crust shift and collide, their movement can change the area’s landscape. Sometimes,

tectonic activity

causes an area of the Earth’s

crust

to rise higher than the surrounding land. This process is called

tectonic uplift

.

Tectonic uplift

can create plateaus and mountains.

Rivers

and glaciers that cut through these

elevated

areas of land create deep

canyons

.

The

Grand

Canyon

, in the U.S. state of Arizona, is a product of

tectonic uplift

. The

Grand

Canyon

, up to 447 kilometers (277 miles) long, 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide, and 1.8 kilometers (6,000 feet) deep, is the largest

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canyon

in the United States. The

Grand

Canyon

has been carved, over millions of years, as the Colorado

River

cuts through the Colorado

Plateau

. The Colorado

Plateau

is a large area that was

elevated

through

tectonic uplift

millions of years ago. Geologists debate the age of the

canyon

itself—it may be between 5 million and 70 million years old.

Canyons Reveal Earth’s History

Canyons

are like silent journals of an area’s history over thousands or even millions of years. By studying the exposed layers of rock in a

canyon

wall, experts can learn about how the climate changed, what kind of organisms were alive at certain times, and perhaps even how the

canyon

may change in the future.

For example,

geologists

studying layers of rock in the Columbia

River

Gorge

, in the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, discovered that the oldest rocks there are at least 17 million years old. They also found out the rocks are dark-black basalt, made from hardened lava. From this,

geologists

determined that the rocks formed when volcanoes erupted and their

lava

spilled out onto the land. Over millions of years, the Columbia

River

and Ice Age

glaciers

cut through the area and exposed its volcanic beginnings.

Canyons

are also important to paleontology, or the study of fossils.

Fossils

are often best preserved in dry, hot areas. Since

canyons

usually form under the same conditions, they are good places to examine

fossils

.

The layers of

sediment

revealed by a

canyon

can make it easier to date

fossils

. For example, a new area of dinosaur tracks was discovered in the U.S. state of Utah at Glen

Canyon

National Recreation Area in 2009. These tracks reveal new information about a group of

dinosaurs

called ornithopods. Paleontologists analyzed the layers of rock surrounding the

fossils

to estimate how old they were. These new

dinosaur

tracks show that ornithopods were alive 20 million years earlier than scientists thought.

Geologists

study

canyons

to

determine

how the

landscape

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will change in the future. The

erosion

patterns and thickness of different layers can reveal the

climate

during different years. A series of very dry years will have very thin layers of rock, when little

erosion

took place. The overall pattern of

erosion

and layering reveals the rate of water flow, from both the

river

and rain, through a

canyon

.

Geologists

estimate

that the

Grand

Canyon

, for example, is being eroded at a rate of 0.3 meters (1 foot) every 200 years. The Colorado

Plateau

, the geologic area where the

Grand

Canyon

is located, is a very stable area.

Geologists

expect the

Grand

Canyon

to continue to deepen as long as the Colorado

River

flows.

Submarine Canyons

Some of the deepest

canyons

lie beneath the ocean. These submarine

canyons

cut into continental shelves and continental slopes—the edges of

continents

that are underwater.

Some

submarine

canyons

were carved by

rivers

that flowed during periods when the sea level was lower, and the

continental

shelves were exposed. The Hudson

Canyon

extends 750 kilometers (450 miles) into the Atlantic Ocean, from the mouth of the Hudson

River

, in the U.S. states of New York and New Jersey. At least part of the Hudson

Canyon

was the

river

bed

during the last

ice

age

, when

sea levels

were much lower.

Submarine

canyons

can also develop when powerful ocean currents sweep away

sediments

. Just as

rivers

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erode land, these

currents

carve deep

canyons

in the ocean floor. Strong

currents

of the Atlantic Ocean prevent Whittard

Canyon

, about 400 kilometers (248 miles) south of the coast of Ireland, from filling with

sediment

. Scientists studying Whittard

Canyon

believe glacial water mixed with seawater to rush into the

submarine

canyon

thousands of years ago.

The formation of some

submarine

canyons

is still a mystery. Monterey

Canyon

is a deep

submarine

canyon

off the coast of the U.S. state of California. It has been compared to the

Grand

Canyon

because of its size. It is 152 kilometers (95 miles) long and 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) deep at its deepest point.

Geologists

still aren’t certain how Monterey

Canyon

was formed. One theory is that the

canyon

was formed by an ancient outlet of the Sacramento or Colorado

Rivers

. Another theory is that it was formed by

tectonic activity

—an earthquake splitting apart the rock with enormous force. Scientists believe the

canyon

was formed 25 million to 30 million years ago.

The depth of

submarine

canyons

makes them hard to explore. Scientists usually use remotely operated vehicles (

ROVs

) to conduct studies. Sometimes, they can use a submersible, a special kind of

submarine

. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) uses a vehicle called Ventana to explore Monterey Canyon. Through the Ventana and other research vehicles, MBARI scientists have discovered new species of organisms living in the

canyon

, from tiny sea anemones to giant squid.

Fast Fact

Surf's Down!
Surfing is much more than just "riding the waves"it starts with what lies beneath. The seafloor transforms ordinary waves into good waves . . . and good waves into great surfing. Bathymetry, or measuring the depth and rise of the seafloor, is important to good surfers.

If there is a steep ascent of the ocean floor near the beach, it will cause waves to rise more quickly, and become bigger. If, however, the ocean floor has a slow and gradual ascent, the waves will come in more slowly, and not break as big.

The famous El Porto surf area off the coast of Los Angeles, California, is a good example of how big waves develop. An underwater canyon focuses the energy of underwater currents, and the canyon's steep walls cause waves to rise quickly, producing huge, powerful waves.

Fast Fact

Valles Marineris
The largest canyon in the solar system isn't found on Earth. Valles Marineris is a canyon system on Mars that is 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) long, 600 kilometers (372 miles) wide, and, in some places, 10 kilometers (6 miles) deep.

The Grand Canyon, in contrast, is 447 kilometers (277 miles) long, 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide, and 1.8 kilometers (6,000 feet) deep.

FAQs

What is a canyon in social studies? ›

A canyon is a deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

What are canyons in geography? ›

canyon, deep, steep-walled, V-shaped valley cut by a river through resistant rock. Such valleys often occur in the upper courses of rivers, where the stream has a strong, swift current that digs its valley relatively rapidly. Smaller valleys of similar appearance are called gorges.

Is National Geographic Society owned by Disney? ›

National Geographic Partners, LLC is a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company (which owns 73% of shares) and the namesake non-profit scientific organization National Geographic Society (which owns 27%).

Who won the National Geographic grant 2022? ›

The recipients of the 2022 National Geographic/Buffett Awards for Leadership In Conservation are Rachel Ikemeh (Africa) and Giuliana Furci (Latin America).

What are 3 facts about canyons? ›

Canyon Facts
  • Is a chasm 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide.
  • Below Yavapai point is 2,400 feet above sea level, about 4,500 feet below the South Rim and 5,400 feet below the North Rim, for an average depth of about one mile.
  • Took 3-6 million years to form; erosion continues to alter its contours.

Whats the definition for canyon? ›

: a deep narrow valley with steep sides and often with a stream flowing through it. : something resembling a canyon. the city's concrete canyons.

What is a canyon and what makes it unique? ›

Formed by rivers making deep cuts within the Earth's terrain. Bound by cliffs and cut by erosion, canyons are deep, narrow valleys in the Earth's crust that evoke superlatives and a sense of wonder. Layers of rock outline stories of regional geology like the table of contents to a scientific text.

How is canyon formed in geography? ›

Most canyons were formed by a process of long-time erosion from a plateau or table-land level. The cliffs form because harder rock strata that are resistant to erosion and weathering remain exposed on the valley walls.

What is National Geographic Grant Level I? ›

Level I Grants receive funding up to USD $20,000 and offer unique opportunities for training, networking, coaching, mentorship, and more from fellow National Geographic Explorers, experts, staff, partners, and forums.

Does National Geographic offer scholarships? ›

Young Explorers Grants vary in amount depending on significance of the project, though most range between US $2,000 and $5,000 at the maximum. National Geographic Society funds often serve as complementary support—thus the program encourages applicants to seek additional, concurrent funding from other sources.

What is the NFR grant? ›

The New Fiscal Relationship (NFR) Transfer is a new funding mechanism – a replacement for contribution agreements – available April 1, 2019 to over 100 First Nations that met the eligibility requirements this year. More First Nations may choose to participate in the next fiscal year and following.

Is National Geographic free with Disney plus? ›

Consumers are able to sign-up for National Geographic Premium with Disney+ today at natgeo.com/premium, immediately access premium content on the site and unlock the vast library of content on Disney+. For more information, visit natgeo.com/premium.

Did National Geographic sell to Disney? ›

National Geographic Partners is a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company (which owns 73% of shares) and the namesake non-profit scientific organization National Geographic Society (which owns 27%).

Is National Geographic still a nonprofit? ›

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world.

Why is the canyon world famous? ›

Canyons or gorges are one of nature's natural wonders. Whether admired from a height or scaled from the depths of the valley, the sheer size of these imposing natural structures can be awe-inspiring.

How old is the oldest canyon? ›

Grand Canyon
Length277 miles (446 km)
Width4 to 18 miles (6.4 to 29.0 km)
Geology
Age5–6 million years
8 more rows

Can people live in canyons? ›

The Tribes of Today

Together with the National Park Service, they help to care for Grand Canyon. The Havasupai live in the last remaining tribal village inside the canyon. Navajo, Southern Paiute, and Hualapai communities lie along the edge, or rim, of the canyon.

What is the biggest canyon in the US? ›

Grand Canyon, Arizona

The deepest part of Grand Canyon is about 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) deep. The average depth is 1 mile or 5,280 feet (1,609 meters).

What is the major factor of the creation of canyons? ›

The natural processes of weathering and erosion, the movement of rivers, and activity in tectonic creates canyons.

Is a canyon an ecosystem? ›

Biologists agree the Grand Canyon contains five ecosystems: the Canadian, Hudsonian, Transition, Upper Sonoran and Lower Sonoran. To see these ecosystems outside of the canyon you would have to travel from Mexico to Canada.

What is the most famous canyon? ›

The Grand Canyon, USA

It's the grandest of them all, the most striking and, unfortunately, the most popular: Arizona's Grand Canyon. The waiting list to raft the Colorado river can be as long as 10 years.

What kind of biome is a canyon? ›

The Grand Canyon is mostly considered a desert biome because it is a very hot and dry place.

What is a another word for canyon? ›

gorge, gully, ravine, valley, glen, gulch, coulee.

What are 5 facts about canyons? ›

20 Amazing Grand Canyon Facts
  • Grand Canyon National Park is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island. ...
  • The Hopi Tribe considers the Grand Canyon a gateway to the afterlife. ...
  • Temperatures vary greatly within the canyon. ...
  • The canyon is full of hidden caves. ...
  • In 1909, the canyon was the site of a giant hoax.
Apr 20, 2018

What are the advantages of a canyon? ›

Canyons provide an escape to nature for hiking, birding, and biking in an otherwise densely urbanized area. Learn more. Urban canyons can reduce urban runoff and improve water quality. Biodiversity is the variety of life native to a particular region.

What is the biggest canyon in the world? ›

The “Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon” is the largest and deepest canyon in the world. The “Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon” is the largest and deepest canyon in the world. The canyon reaches an average depth of 7,440 feet passing through the Gyala Peri mountains and the peaks of the Namcha Barwa.

What is a canyon and how is it formed? ›

Canyons are created by erosion. Over thousands or millions of years a river's flowing water erodes, or wears away, soil and rocks to form a valley. The largest and most famous canyons have been cut through dry areas by swift streams fed by rain or melting snow from wetter areas.

What is the process of a canyon? ›

Geologists call the process of canyon formation downcutting. Downcutting occurs as a river carves out a canyon or valley, cutting down into the earth and eroding away rock. Downcutting happens during flooding. When large amounts of water are moved through a river channel, large rocks and boulders are carried too.

What is a canyon definition for kids? ›

A canyon is a narrow, deep valley cut by a river through rock. Canyons range in size from narrow slits to huge trenches. They have very steep sides and may be thousands of feet deep. Smaller valleys of similar appearance are called gorges.

What is a canyon give one example? ›

The noun canyon refers to a deep ravine that has been cut into the earth's surface over a long period of time by erosion from a running river. Also known as a gorge, it usually has very steep walls with rocky cliffs. One of the most famous examples is the Grand Canyon, which was cut by the Colorado River.

What is canyon and how is it formed? ›

Geologists call the process of canyon formation downcutting. Downcutting occurs as a river carves out a canyon or valley, cutting down into the earth and eroding away rock. Downcutting happens during flooding. When large amounts of water are moved through a river channel, large rocks and boulders are carried too.

What is the oldest canyon in the world? ›

Grand Canyon

What type of rock is canyon? ›

Sedimentary rocks form the middle and top layers of Grand Canyon. Layers of sediment hardened into sedimentary rocks over time. Most of the canyon's igneous and metamorphic rocks make up the bottom layers of Grand Canyon, near the Colorado River.

What is the deepest canyon in America? ›

Deepest Gorge in North America

Carved by the great Snake River, Hells Canyon plunges more than a mile below Oregon's west rim, and 8,000 feet below snowcapped He Devil Peak of Idaho's Seven Devils Mountains.

Is canyon water or land? ›

This is when land is worn away over time by some kind of force, like weather or a body of water. In the case of canyons, a river is what most often causes the erosion. Rivers carve into the land with their rushing waters, wearing away the land and over millions of years, a canyon is formed.

What is the function of canyon? ›

Canyons facilitate the transport of nutrients from the shelf to the deep basins, affecting the overall faunal abundance and biodiversity of an area (see Section The Ecological Role of Canyons), and play a role in the maintenance of provisioning services within canyons (e.g., fisheries, see Section Provisioning Services ...

What are three types of canyons? ›

According to World Atlas, there are three common types of canyons:
  • Box Canyon: Canyons that are shorter, narrower, and have 3 sides.
  • Slot Canyon: These are narrow canyons with smooth walls.
  • Submarine Canyons: These are the steep valleys on continental slopes under the sea.

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