A plain is a broad area of relatively flat land. Plains are one of the major landforms, or types of land, on Earth. They cover more than one-third of the world’s land area. Plains exist on every continent.
Many plains, such as the Great Plains that stretch across much of central North America, are grasslands. A grassland is a region where grass is the main type of vegetation.
In North America, temperate grasslands—those in places with warm summers and cold winters—are often called prairies. In areas with little rain and snow, short grasses grow. In areas that receive more rain and snow, tall grasses can grow 1.5 meters (5 feet) high. However, most tallgrass prairies have been plowed under and are now farmland or pasture.
The Great Plains have supported a wide variety of cultures for thousands of years. The so-called “Plains Indians” are actually more than two dozen tribes. Communities include Blackfoot, native to the Canadian province of Alberta; Arapaho, whose center today is in the U.S. state of Wyoming; and Kickapoo, many of whom live today in the Mexican state of Coahuila.
In Asia and eastern Europe, temperate grasslands are called steppes. Steppes usually do not receive enough rain for tall grasses and trees to grow.
Tropical grasslands are called savannas. Savannas exist in places that are warm throughout the year. They often have scattered trees. Savannas such as the Serengeti plains stretch across much of central Africa. They are also found in Australia, South America, and southern North America.
Not all plains are grasslands. Some, such as Mexico’s Tabasco Plain, are forested. Forested plains have different types of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation.
Deserts can also be plains. Parts of the Sahara, a great desert in North Africa, are plains.
In the Arctic, where the ground is frozen, plains are called tundra. Despite the cold, many plants survive here, including shrubs and moss.
Plains form in many different ways. Some plains form as ice and water erodes, or wears away, the dirt and rock on higher land. Water and ice carry the bits of dirt, rock, and other material, called sediment, down hillsides to be deposited elsewhere. As layer upon layer of this sediment is laid down, plains form.
Volcanic activity can also form plains. Lava plains form when lava pushes up from below ground and flows across the land. The earth in a lava plain is often much darker than the surrounding soil. The dark earth is a result of the lava, mostly a dark-colored mineral called basalt, broken down into tiny particles over millions of years.
The movement of rivers sometimes forms plains. Many rivers run through valleys. As rivers move from side to side, they gradually erode the valley, creating broad plains.
As a river floods, it overflows its bank. The flood carries mud, sand, and other sediment out over the land. After the water withdraws, the sediment remains. If a river floods repeatedly, over time this sediment will build up into a flood plain. Flood plains are often rich in nutrients and create fertile farmland. The flood plain surrounding Africa’s Nile River has helped Egyptian civilization thrive for thousands of years.
Alluvial plains form at the base of mountains. Water carrying sediment flows downhill until it hits flat land. There, it spreads out, depositing the sediment in the shape of a fan. The Huang He River in China has created an alluvial plain that covers about 409,500 square kilometers (158,000 square miles). Because much of the sediment the Huang He carries is yellowish in color, it is also called the Yellow River.
Many rivers deposit their sediment in the ocean. As the sediment builds up, it might eventually rise above sea level, forming a coastal plain. The Atlantic Coastal Plain stretches along much of the eastern coast of North America. These broad underwater plains slope gently down beneath the water.
Abyssal plains are found at the bottom of the ocean. These plains are 5,000 to 7,000 meters (16,400 to 23,000 feet) below sea level, so scientists have a hard time studying them. But scientists say abyssal plains are among the flattest, smoothest places on Earth.
Plains on Other Planets
Plains can be found on other planets. Mercury has large stretches of plains, and scientists have landed several probes on the boulder-covered plains of Mars.
The Great Plains of North America once supported about 50 million bison, which are sometimes called buffalo. The bison roamed in vast herds, feeding on the prairie grasses. They were hunted to near-extinction in the 1800s.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry abyssal plain Noun
extensive, featureless region of the deep ocean floor.
alluvial plain Noun
flat or gently sloping surface created by sediments left by flowing water.
people and culture native to the Midwest of the U.S.
region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.
Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic bank Noun
a slope of land adjoining a body of water, or a large elevated area of the sea floor.
type of dark volcanic rock.
large mammal native to North America. Also called American buffalo.
people and culture native to the northern U.S. and southern Canada.
wide or expansive.
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization coastal plain Noun
low, flat land lying next to the ocean.
Encyclopedic Entry: coastal plain continent Noun
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: continent deposit Verb
to place or deliver an item in a different area than it originated.
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
Encyclopedic Entry: desert dozen Noun
a group of 12.
to wear away.
process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.
area used for agriculture.
able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.
flood plain Noun
flat area alongside a stream or river that is subject to flooding.
Encyclopedic Entry: flood plain forest Verb
to cover with trees and other vegetation.
type of plant with narrow leaves.
ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.
Great Plains Noun
grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.
group of animals.
people and culture native to the southern U.S. and northern Mexico.
specific natural feature on the Earth's surface.
Encyclopedic Entry: landform lava Noun
molten rock, or magma, that erupts from volcanoes or fissures in the Earth's surface.
lava plain Noun
large, flat piece of land created by lava spreading out evenly across a region.
chemical element with the symbol Hg.
inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.
tiny plant usually found in moist, shady areas.
landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient pasture Noun
type of agricultural land used for grazing livestock.
flat, smooth area at a low elevation.
Encyclopedic Entry: plain Plains Indian Noun
one of many people and cultures native to the Great Plains in North America.
large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.
Encyclopedic Entry: planet plow noun, verb
tool used for cutting, lifting, and turning the soil in preparation for planting.
large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.
Encyclopedic Entry: prairie probe Noun
spacecraft designed to study part of the solar system and send information back to Earth.
division of a country larger than a town or county.
Encyclopedic Entry: province region Noun
any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
Encyclopedic Entry: region relatively Adverb
in comparison to something else.
natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.
Sahara Desert Noun
world's largest desert, in north Africa.
small, loose grains of disintegrated rocks.
type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.
sea level Noun
base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.
Encyclopedic Entry: sea level sediment Noun
solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.
Encyclopedic Entry: sediment Serengeti plains Noun
grassland of the Serengeti ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania.
precipitation made of ice crystals.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
dry, flat grassland with no trees and a cool climate.
Encyclopedic Entry: steppe tallgrass prairie Noun
plain where grasses grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) tall.
temperate grassland Noun
flat, grassy area where there are seasonal differences in temperature and precipitation.
to develop and be successful.
cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.
depression in the Earth between hills.
huge and spread out.
all the plant life of a specific place.
having to do with volcanoes.