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The USA

2010.02.28

The Geography of the United States

Kép The United States is a large country in the Western Hemisphere. It consists of forty-eight contiguous states in North America, Alaska and Hawaii. There are several United States territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. The term "United States", when used in the geographical sense, means the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands of the United States. The country shares land borders with Canada and Mexico and water borders with Russia, Cuba, and The Bahamas.

By total area (water as well as land), the United States is either slightly larger or smaller than the People's Republic of China, making it the world's third or fourth largest country. By land area only (exclusive of waters), the United States is the world's third largest country, after Russia and China. Whether the US or China is the third largest country depends on two factors: (1) The validity of China's claim on Aksai Chin and Trans-Karakoram Tract. Both these territories are also claimed by India, so are not counted; and (2) How US calculates its own surface area. Since the initial publishing of the World Factbook, the CIA has updated the total area of United States a number of times. From 1989 through 1996, the total area of the US was listed as 9,372,610 km2 (land + inland water only). The listed total area changed to 9,629,091 km2 in 1997 (Great Lakes area and coastal waters added), to 9,631,418 km2 in 2004, to 9,631,420 km2 in 2006, and to 9,826,630 km2 in 2007 (territorial waters added). Currently, the CIA World Factbook gives 9,826,675 km2, the United Nations Statistics Division gives 9,629,091 km2, and the Encyclopedia Britannica gives 9,522,055 km2.

The United States shares land borders with Canada (to the north) and Mexico (to the south), and a territorial water border with Russia in the northwest. The contiguous forty-eight states are otherwise bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, and the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast. Alaska borders the Pacific Ocean to the south, the Bering Strait to the west, and the Arctic Ocean to the north, while Hawaii lies far to the southwest of the mainland in the Pacific Ocean.

Kép Forty-eight of the states are in the single region between Canada and Mexico; this group is referred to as the contiguous United States, and as the Lower 48. Alaska, which is not included in the term contiguous United States, is at the northwestern end of North America, separated from the Lower 48 by Canada. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. The capital city, Washington, District of Columbia, is a federal district located on land donated by the state of Maryland. (Virginia had also donated land, but it was returned in 1847.) The United States also has overseas territories with varying levels of independence and organization.