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Physical Landscape

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The physical landscape should be the starting point for your investigation of your town's natural and cultural history. We can think of the physical landscape as the stage that supports the cast of human and non-human characters, the actors in an ever-unfolding story. Built of bedrock, surficial sediments, soils, topography, hydrology and climate, the physical landscape has been shaped by enormous geologic forces over millions of years. Since the retreat of the glacier from the Vermont landscape 12,000 years ago, many casts of characters have interacted and migrated across this relatively stable backdrop; plants and animals continually shift and evolve in response to their stage, the physical environment.

Indeed, the nature of the physical landscape often defines and limits the distribution of plants, animals and people across the landscape. Climate and topography are two major factors that control a landscape's exposure to sunlight and precipitation. Even locally, the shape and character of bedrock and surficial sediments will determine where certain plants and animals can thrive. For example, in Vermont, you are almost certain to find balsam fir trees at a lower elevation on the north face of a mountain than on the south face of the same mountain. Perhaps at the base of this same hill there is a sunny limestone outcrop, and here you are sure to spot patches of ebony sedge and wild columbine thriving in the well drained, more basic soil.

The Winooski River corridor through
the Green Mountains

Aspects of the physical landscape have long controlled the distribution of people as well. Think of the Winooski River as it cuts through the steep Green Mountains. This river corridor provides a sheltered and easily navigable path across the central part of the State, and also provides a rich floodplain for farming. The fact that a busy interstate, miles of agricultural fields, and a wide meandering river occur side by side is no coincidence.

You can find out more about the physical landscape of your community by reading our general descriptions of five physical landscape features (bedrock, surficial geology, soils, topography, hydrology, and climate) and by following the links to specific case studies. We've also provided you with a list of resources that can give you more detailed information about Vermont and/or your community.

A brief history and overview of Vermont's physical landscape

For an excellent overview of Vermont's physical landscape, also visit: The Landscape Change Project

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