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Name: Justine J.
Status: Student
Age: 16
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: August 8, 2004

How tall does a hill have to be to be considered a mountain? What does the elevation have to be to be considered a mountain?

Thanks for your question Justine... One of the gravest complaints I had about geologic terminology during my undergraduate education was that it seemed, at times, to be full of words that were either very ill-defined or had any number of meanings; "mountain" is one of those words. As it turns out, when speaking technically about things like mountains or mountain ranges, geologists typically prefer to use other, more descriptive terms that convey much more information with less effort. Using very technical language is of great advantage to scientists because it is a more efficient means of communicating very complex ideas to other scientists. Unfortunately, this technical language is also one reason that the general public is somewhat uncomfortable with science.

As far as geologists are concerned, you could call just about any sort of positive topographic feature a mountain and probably get away with it (within reason, of course). Geographers, on the other hand, who's primary interests often concern topographic anomalies like mountains and basins, usually reserve the term "mountain" for a positive topographic feature which rises to a height of at least 305 meters above the surrounding terrain. Anything less than 305 meters in height is considered a hill, and anything considerably less than 305 meters is termed a "hillock." Why 305 meters is the magic number, I do not know. I would guess that it was chosen as the result of a statistical study of hill/mountain heights and was consequently made the standard by which all hills/mountains would be judged.

Although I believe having strict definitions like this are very valuable, I must defend geologists (since I am one of them) by saying that we are usually more interested in how and why a mountain formed as opposed to how high it is. Mountains can form in several ways, including continental collision (like the Appalachian Mountains), volcanism (like the Andes Mountains), and glacial deposition (like large drumlins and moraines in the Great Lakes region). On a humorous note (if you think this kind of thing is funny), one of the tallest, if not "the" tallest mountain in Michigan (Upper Peninsula) is actually a human-made mountain composed of broken, useless rock called "tailings" that the iron-ore mining industry has been piling up in the same place for decades. I can laugh at it. I used to live there.

Scott J. Badham
Department of Geology and Geophysics
University of Wyoming

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