Defining a Mountain

(Again, I’m not sure if I’m putting this in the right place, so feel free to move to a better location)

When I saw the lecture “Defining a Mountain” in W1, I kept thinking of the film “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.” I saw it several years ago but don’t remember much other than the titles. Wikipedia tells me

  1. its overarching theme is the restoration of “the community’s war-damaged self-esteem” (it’s set in 1917 during WWI)
  2. the plot concerns the efforts of a group to build a mound on top of the “hill” to make it qualify as a mountain;
  3. The writer created the script from a story his grandfather told him about Garth Hill in Wales; since the film, the visitors to that site have increased.

It’s interesting how this showcases the lecture’s point about a community’s ties to mountains. It seems this community’s attachment to its mountain went from a family story to a popular film.


Hey Karen,

I took the liberty of moving your reply into its own topic for visibility.

I haven’t watched the movie you mention, but I just checked the trailer on YouTube.

I can see how lesson 1 reminded of the movie — in particular, defining a mountain using objective vs subjective criteria. Based on the trailer, it seems like in the movie, they went with the straightforward definition: sufficient elevation, then it’s a mountain. Had they gone with the “if the locals consider it a mountain, then it’s a mountain” definition covered in 1.3, they could have saved themselves some trouble. :slightly_smiling_face:

I might just watch the movie. Thanks for sharing it.


Week 5 of the course is watching this movie :slightly_smiling_face:

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Well, then I’ll definitely be watching the movie. :grinning:

Charming! I’ll look forward to watching that movie.

Oh, sorry I jumped the gun! But I’m glad you considered it relevant. :wink:

Ah, but then there would be one less Hugh Grant romcom in the world. (He was quite the heartthrob at the time, though I was more interested in Miles from ST:TNG).

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I’d never have thought a World Bank paper could be a fun read, but this one called ‘What is a mountain? : background paper to definition of mountains and mountain regions’ is fascinating.
You can download the short pdf here What is a mountain? : background paper to definition of mountains and mountain regions


This comment about the treeline stood out to me:

“The highest elevation at which trees grow anywhere in the world is 30’0N and 30’0 S in the arid zones of the Andes and the Himalayas and not in the humid tropics as might be expected”

In Unit 3, I see a possible explanation for this: due to the tilt of the earth, solar radiation is actually strongest at the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn (depending on season), not the equator:

During summer in the Northern Hemisphere, solar radiation strikes the Earth most directly near the Tropic of Cancer around the latitude of 23.5 degrees North. Here, temperatures are higher during the summer than in the tropics near the equator. The opposite pattern occurs during the summer in the Southern Hemisphere where temperatures are often warmest near the Tropic of Capricorn.

Also, in the comments on continentality, there’s mention that cloud cover reduces solar radiation, which might also have an impact on treelines in the “humid tropics”.

Cool article, Hamish, gave me some ways to try to apply what we’re studying.


I have another question roughly in the vicinity of defining mountains (again, the powers that be should feel free to move if they see fit). Alas, this question will reveal I am not terribly well-versed in mountain-knowledge, but that’s what these courses are for.

I’ve always found it confusing that there are mountain ranges within mountain ranges. The Appalachians (the only mountains I have any familiarity with) in the eastern US include things like the Catskills and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wikipedia throws around the term “a physiographic province of the larger Appalachian Mountains range” but that seems more related to different features of a range rather than a separation of one range into sub-ranges.

I told you I found it confusing. Are the Alleghenies and the Green Mountains and the Berkshires and the Great Smokies just locally-determined parts of one range, based on who got there first to name them, or is there some scientific distinction that separates them from the Appalachians?

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After some Googling, it seems defining a range is as tricky as defining a mountain. From what I’ve gathered, the Appalachian are a mountain system — a group of mountain ranges with a common geological origin. And the Alleghenies or the Great Smokies are mountain ranges — a group of connected mountains in alignment.

But then I imagine one may find examples of mountains that aren’t really in alignment but are nonetheless called a “range”. And in practice, mountain range and mountain system seem to often be used interchangeably. Hmm, maybe it’s better to accept that these words are intrinsically blurry and their usage subjective. :sweat_smile:


For my two bits, the distinction between a mountain, a massif, a mountain range, a mountain system and a cordillera is one of scale and geological origins.

A mountain range is a linear arrangement of mountain peaks and ridges surrounded by adjacent lower land or clearly separated from adjacent ranges by intervening valleys. The mountains of a range are commonly related to a single geological structure or rock formation.

A group of related peaks with a circular rather than linear arrangement is called a massif.

An array of mountain ranges, massifs and other topographic elements of related origin comprise a mountain system (but may also be named a Range)

Several systems over a large (often continental scale) is a cordillera. (e.g. The Cordillera of western North America extends from Mexico to Alaska and includes about 20 mountain systems each composed of many mountain ranges.

From: Mountain Range | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Thank you both - it does seem to be a bit vague in common use, so it’s nice to know a little about the distinction. New words: cordillera and massif.


Yikes, I lived in Chile for 2 years and always heard about the “cordillera” but thought it was synonymous with mountain range, or at least the Spanish equivalent.

You never know what you don’t know is a humbling thought.


Very true. I’m Spanish and didn’t know the difference between cordillera and range.

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I got this reCaptcha from Google when signing into Coursera :laughing: