What is a Mountain?

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What height makes a landform that rises from its surrounding area a mountain?  

While there is a conventional understanding that a mountain is higher than a hill, there is no universally accepted definition of a mountain.

Does the United States Have a Definition of a Mountain?

In the United States, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names once held the position that what defined a mountain as opposed to a hill was 1,000 feet of local relief.  

This was abandoned in the early 1970s due to the lack of a board agreement on this definition.  

Hills have a lower elevation than mountains.  A hill in the Italian countryside.  Photo: John J. Mosesso, USGS. Public domain.
Hills have a lower elevation than mountains. A hill in the Italian countryside. Photo: John J. Mosesso, USGS. Public domain.

Definition of a Mountain in the United Kingdom

Up until the 1920s, the UK Ordnance Survey defined a mountain as having a relief of more than 1,000 feet, a concept that formed the plot for the Hugh Grant movie, “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.” (affiliate link).  

Nowadays, the Ordnance Survey defers to local customs and traditions but generally defines a mountain (page archived from the Wayback Machine) as having a minimum height of 610 meters or 2,000 feet.

Using GPS to Proof Mountain Status

With the availability of high precision GPS equipment, some have taken to remeasuring British mountains in an effort to get previously designated hills reclassified as mountains.

For example, Thack Moor in the North Pennines in Cumbria was declared a mountain after amateur surveyors remeasured it twice to prove that it met the Ordnance Survey’s mountain height requirements.

Dictionary Definitions of a Mountain

Many dictionary definitions of what is a mountain use qualitative rather than a quantitative approach to defining these topographical structures.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a mountains as “a natural elevation of the earth surface rising more or less abruptly from the surrounding level and attaining an altitude which, relatively to the adjacent elevation, is impressive or notable.”  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a mountain as “an area of land that rises very high above the land around it and that is higher than a hill”.

Chief Mountain in Montana rises to an elevation of 9,085 ft (2,769 m).  Photo: USGS, Public domain.
Chief Mountain in Montana rises to an elevation of 9,085 ft (2,769 m). Photo: USGS, Public domain.

Three Defining Criteria for a Mountain

Some academics have also tried to create a set of criteria for defining mountains.  Roderick Peattie who published “Mountain Geography” in 1936 argued that three main criteria for defining mountains.  

  • He argued that mountains should be impressive;
  • Peattie noted that mountains “should enter into the imagination of the people that live in their shadows.”  
  • Peattie also felt that mountains should have individual character and play a symbolic role in the local area.

What is a Mountain is in the Eye of the Beholder

In many regions, the concept of what makes a mountain is one of relativity.  In areas without a lot of steep topography, locals may refer to local rises in elevations as mount or mountains.  For example, the highest point in San Francisco is known as Mount Davidson, which has an elevation of 928 feet (283 meters).

Mount Logan is the highest in mountain in Canada at 5,959 meters (19,551 feet)
Mount Logan is the highest in mountain in Canada at 5,959 meters (19,551 feet). Photo: NOAA, public domain.

This article was first published on September 1, 2014 and was recently updated.

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