What Is a Mesa?

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A mesa is a geological formation characterized by a flat-topped table-like structure with steep sides. It is formed by the erosion of surrounding rock layers, leaving a resistant layer of rock on top. Mesas are commonly found in arid and semi-arid regions and can vary in size from small hills to large plateaus. They are often found in desert landscapes and can provide important habitats for various plant and animal species. Mesas are not only visually striking but also serve as valuable landmarks and geological features that help scientists study the Earth’s history and processes.

Have you ever been to the Southwestern United States? If you reside there, you are familiar with the breathtaking natural beauty that can be found throughout the region. If you have never been there, maybe you have seen photographs of places like the Grand Canyon.

Can you imagine being one of the Native Americans who considered these places their home hundreds of years ago? How would it have felt to be a Spanish explorer witnessing a sight like the Grand Canyon for the first time?

People who do not live in or have never visited the American Southwest are often captivated by the unique landforms that do not exist elsewhere in the country. For instance, early Spanish explorers were fascinated by the numerous tall landforms with flat tops and steep sides that they encountered.

They referred to these landforms as mesas, because they believed they resembled tabletops. In Spanish, the word “mesa” means table.

Mesas are typically comprised of compressed layers of sedimentary rock with a top layer of harder rock that is resistant to erosion. For example, in many areas, the top of a mesa might consist of a thick layer of cooled and hardened lava.

Mesas are most commonly found in arid and semiarid regions. These regions receive minimal rainfall, resulting in sparse trees and ground cover. Additionally, the rain that does occur usually comes in heavy downpours. Combined with strong winds, these heavy rains gradually erode the softer sedimentary layers.

As a result of this type of erosion, mesas develop as tall landforms with steep sides and wide, flat tops. The top layer of durable rock (known as cap rock) remains intact while the softer rock along the sides erodes over time.

Mesas are closely related to two similar landforms: buttes and plateaus. The distinction between these landforms lies in their size. Mesas have a surface area ranging from 11,251 square feet to four square miles. Plateaus are larger (over four square miles) and buttes are smaller (11,250 square feet or less).

Others make a simpler differentiation between a mesa and a butte. For instance, some argue that a mesa is wider than it is tall, while a butte is taller than it is wide.

These three landforms are also interconnected in the sense that, over time, one landform can transform into another. For example, a plateau can be eroded by rivers, resulting in multiple mesas. Similarly, a mesa can erode over time until it becomes taller than wide, at which point it is considered a butte. A butte will eventually erode into a pinnacle, which will eventually crumble and fall to the ground.

Try It Out

Are you ready to learn more about fascinating landforms? Remember to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

There are mesas in space, and this article called “A Mesa in Noctis Labyrinthus” provides information about a mesa that scientists at NASA have recently discovered on Mars. The article also poses a question about whether or not someone would go to Mars to explore if given the opportunity. The reader is asked to share their reasons for wanting or not wanting to explore Mars.

The article then shifts to Spanish explorers in the American Southwest and asks the reader to imagine being one of the first explorers to come across a unique landform with tall, steep sides and a wide, flat top. The explorers called these landforms mesas because they resembled tabletops. The reader is encouraged to think of other names these explorers might have given the landforms if they had been more imaginative, and to share their ideas with someone else.

The article concludes by mentioning Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where one of the most famous mesas can be found. It suggests visiting the Cliff Dwellings page to learn about the relics left behind by Native Americans who once occupied the area.

The list of “Wonder Sources” provided at the end of the article includes three websites that can be visited for further information on mesas. These websites are:

1. https://www.reference.com/science/mesa-landform-451948f1857be1f6

2. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/mesa/

3. http://www.scienceclarified.com/landforms/Faults-to-Mountains/Mesa-and-Butte.html


1. What is a mesa?

A mesa is a geological formation characterized by a flat-topped mountain or hill with steep sides. It is usually formed by erosion, where the surrounding terrain is eroded away, leaving behind a flat plateau-like structure. Mesas can be found in different parts of the world and vary in size and shape. They are commonly found in arid or desert regions, where the rock layers are resistant to erosion. Mesas often have a distinct appearance and can provide breathtaking views.

2. How are mesas formed?

Mesas are typically formed through a combination of geological processes. They begin as a flat-lying layer of rock, often sedimentary, which is gradually uplifted due to tectonic forces or volcanic activity. Over time, the surrounding terrain is eroded by wind, water, or ice, exposing the resistant rock layer. The erosion process can take millions of years. As the softer rocks are eroded away, the harder rock layer remains, creating the characteristic flat top of the mesa.

3. What are some famous mesas?

There are several famous mesas around the world that attract tourists and outdoor enthusiasts. One well-known mesa is the Grand Mesa in Colorado, USA. It is the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, covering an area of about 500 square miles. Another famous mesa is the Table Mountain in South Africa, which is a prominent landmark overlooking the city of Cape Town. The Monument Valley, located on the Arizona-Utah border in the United States, is also renowned for its iconic mesas and stunning desert scenery.

4. Are mesas important for any ecosystems?

Yes, mesas can play an important role in supporting diverse ecosystems. The flat tops of mesas provide habitats for various plant and animal species. They can act as refuges for species that prefer higher elevations or drier conditions. The steep sides of mesas can also create microclimates, allowing unique plant communities to thrive. Additionally, mesas often have underground water sources, which can sustain vegetation and wildlife. Preserving and protecting mesas is crucial for maintaining biodiversity and the overall health of ecosystems.

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