The Caribbean: Natural Landscape

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The Caribbean: Natural Landscape

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The Caribbean, or West Indies, is a region of the Americas that consists of several groups of islands within or bordering the Caribbean Sea, plus The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, which are in the Atlantic Ocean. The region includes over 700 islands, islets, reefs, and cays.

The Natural Landscape of the Caribbean

The Caribbean, or West Indies, is a region of the Americas that consists of several groups of islands within or bordering the Caribbean Sea, plus The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, which are in the Atlantic Ocean.

Located southeast of mainland North America, east of Central America, and north of South America, the region includes more than 700 islands, islets, reefs, and cays. In some contexts, the Caribbean region may also include the nations of northern South America whose border regions share the history and culture of the Caribbean islands, i.e., Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname.

The Caribbean region is renowned for its diverse landscapes, ranging from lush rainforests and pristine beaches to rugged mountains and vibrant coral reefs. Its rich biodiversity is a testament to the region's unique ecosystems.

Map of the Caribbean region

Map of the Caribbean region

Biodiversity

The Caribbean region stands out for its extraordinary biodiversity, showcasing an assortment of ecosystems and species shaped by its distinct geography, warm tropical climate, and varied habitats. Renowned for vibrant coral reefs, the Caribbean's underwater realms are bustling with life—colorful corals, reef fish, sea turtles, and various invertebrates. Notable reefs like the Belize Barrier Reef and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System make the region a global hotspot for marine diversity.

The warm Caribbean Sea harbors a diverse marine community, from large predators like sharks and barracudas to smaller wonders like reef fish, seahorses, and lobsters. Dolphins, whales, and manatees gracefully navigate these waters. Mangrove forests and coastal wetlands along the region's shores serve as critical breeding and nursery grounds for marine life, supporting fish, crustaceans, and numerous bird species.

Beyond the coasts, the Caribbean boasts a range of terrestrial ecosystems—rainforests, dry forests, savannas, and mountains. Each habitat shelters a unique mix of plants and animals, including various bird species, reptiles, and mammals. Home to species found nowhere else, the Caribbean nurtures particular adaptations. Examples include the Jamaican iguana and the Puerto Rican parrot, adding to the region's ecological distinctiveness.

Conservation

Despite its natural wealth, the Caribbean confronts conservation hurdles, such as habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution, and climate change impacts like coral bleaching. In response, ongoing efforts focus on safeguarding the region's biodiversity.

Initiatives include establishing protected areas, conducting conservation projects for endangered species, and promoting sustainable tourism practices. Collaborative endeavors involving conservation organizations and governments aim to address environmental challenges and ensure the long-term resilience of the Caribbean's exceptional ecosystems and species.

Climate

The Caribbean region's climate is tropical, somewhat moderated by the prevailing northeast trade winds. Consequently, localized climatic conditions depend strongly on elevation, ocean currents, and trade winds.

Daily maximum temperatures over most of the region range from the upper 20s °C (mid-80s °F) from December to April to the low 30s C (upper 80s F) from May to November. Nighttime temperatures are about 6 °C (10 °F) cooler.

Most islands experience a wet and a dry season. Annual precipitation ranges from 800 - 2,000 mm (30 - 80 in) but can reach more than 5,000 mm (200 in) at the highest elevations. The wet season generally lasts from May to October and the dry season from December to March. The relative humidity is high year-round.

Most tropical cyclones occur in the western Caribbean during May and June at the start of the Caribbean hurricane season. However, they can occur throughout most of the region by August and September—the season peaks in October, when the ocean surface temperature is at its warmest.

Volcanism

The islands of the Lesser Antilles form a curved chain of volcanic islands along the eastern margin of the Caribbean Sea that stretches from Anguilla in the north to Grenada in the south.

The Lesser Antilles Volcanic Arc forms the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Plate. This volcanic arc formed as a result of magmatism associated with subduction. The subduction process formed several volcanic islands, from the Virgin Islands in the north to the islands off the coast of Venezuela in the south, more or less coinciding with the outer cliff of the Caribbean Plate.

The Lesser Antilles includes 19 known volcanoes spread across 11 volcanically-active islands. Most of these islands have a single live volcano that may erupt in the future. However, some islands are more complex. Dominica is the most extreme, with seven live volcanoes, while Grenada hosts three.

Shaded relief bathymetry and land map of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico area

Shaded relief bathymetry and land map of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico area

Natural Geography of the Caribbean

The islands of the Caribbean, collectively known as the West Indies, form an arch that stretches roughly 1,900 km (1,200 mi) from the U.S. Florida peninsula to the southeast, then approximately 800 km (500 mi) in a southerly direction, and then westward off the north coast of the South American mainland.

Three major physiographic divisions constitute the region:

  1. Lucayan Archipelago
  2. Greater Antilles
  3. Lesser Antilles

Lucayan Archipelago

The Lucayan Archipelago is situated in the western North Atlantic Ocean, east-southeast of the U.S. state of Florida, and north of the other islands of the Caribbean. It is comprised of the following:

Geology: The Lucayan Archipelago consists of hundreds of low-lying, carbonate islands constituting the Bahamian Platform, including The Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos Islands. The Bahama Banks are the submerged carbonate platforms that comprise much of the archipelago. The islands of these banks are politically part of The Bahamas. Other banks are the three banks of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Greater Antilles

The Greater Antilles comprises the four largest islands in the Antilles and numerous smaller ones. They lie both west and north of the Lesser Antilles chain. The main islands are:

Geology: Cuba is the largest island in the Greater Antilles, Latin America, and the Caribbean. It is followed by Hispaniola, which Haiti and the Dominican Republic share. With over 200,000 sq km (80,000 sq mi), the Greater Antilles constitute nearly 90% of the Caribbean region's land mass and over 90% of its population. Geologically, the Virgin Islands are also part of the Greater Antilles, though politically, they are considered part of the Lesser Antilles.

Map depicting the regions of the Caribbean

Map depicting the regions of the Caribbean

Lesser Antilles

The islands of the Lesser Antilles lie in a general north-south arc, forming the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea, which meets the Atlantic Ocean and then extends westward off the coast of South America.

Islands on the South American continental shelf include:

  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Aruba
  • Curaçao
  • Bonaire

Geology: The islands of the Lesser Antilles generally coincide with the outer cliff of the Caribbean Plate. Many islands were formed due to the subduction of the oceanic crust of the North American Plate under the Caribbean Plate in the Lesser Antilles subduction zone. This ongoing process is responsible for many of the islands and volcanic and earthquake activity in the region. The islands along the South American coast are essentially the result of the interaction of the South American Plate and the Caribbean Plate, which is mainly strike-slip but includes a compression component.

Mountain Ranges

The Caribbean region is known for its beautiful landscapes, including mountain ranges and volcanic peaks. In addition, many smaller hills and elevated areas throughout the various islands contribute to the region's diverse topography. These are some of the Caribbean region's most prominent mountain and hill ranges and some notable peaks.

See more: Mountain Ranges of the Caribbean

Topographic map of the Caribbean

Map of the Caribbean region with topographical features

Natural Regions

Caribbean Islands Bioregion

The Caribbean Islands bioregion is a biogeographic region that includes the islands of the Caribbean Sea and nearby Atlantic islands. These islands share a fauna, flora, and mycobiota distinct from surrounding bioregions. The islands contain a mixture of dry and moist forests, both broadleaf and conifer, surrounded by mangroves.

Flora and Fauna

The distinct flora and fauna of the Caribbean Islands bioregion were shaped by long periods of physical separation from the neighboring continents, allowing plants and animals to evolve in varying isolation. Some plants and animals arrived via long-distance oceanic dispersal or island hopping from North America and South America.

The bioregion has many plant species, including many endemics. Many rodents are restricted to the region, while three mammal families are endemic. Excluding bats, nearly 90% of the mammals of the Caribbean faunal region have gone extinct since the late Pleistocene, the geological epoch that ended about 11,700 years ago.

Ecological Regions

The following is a list of terrestrial ecoregions in the Caribbean region, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The Caribbean region is in the Neotropical realm. Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate.

Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests biome

  • Cuban moist forests (Cuba)
  • Hispaniolan moist forests (Dominican Republic, Haiti)
  • Jamaican moist forests (Jamaica)
  • Leeward Islands moist forests (Antigua, British Virgin Islands,& Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, Saint Kitts, US Virgin Islands)
  • Puerto Rican moist forests (Puerto Rico)
  • Windward Islands moist forests (Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines)

Tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests biome

  • Bahamian dry forests (The Bahamas)
  • Cayman Islands dry forests (Cayman Islands)
  • Cuban dry forests (Cuba)
  • Hispaniolan dry forests (Dominican Republic, Haiti)
  • Jamaican dry forests (Jamaica)
  • Leeward Islands dry forests (Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Sint Eustatius)
  • Lesser Antillean dry forests (Grenada, Martinique, Netherlands Antilles, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines)
  • Puerto Rican dry forests (Puerto Rico)

Tropical and subtropical coniferous forests biome

Flooded grasslands and savannas biome

  • Cuban wetlands (Cuba)
  • Enriquillo wetlands (Dominican Republic, Haiti)

Deserts and xeric shrublands biome

  • Aruba-Curaçao-Bonaire cactus scrub (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao)
  • Cayman Islands xeric scrub (Cayman Islands)
  • Cuban cactus scrub (Cuba)
  • Leeward Islands xeric scrub (Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy, Saba, US Virgin Islands)
  • Windward Islands xeric scrub (Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines)

Mangrove biome