Hydrological Apex of North America

On May 6, 2009 · 2 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle has discussed watersheds and continental divides before. We’ve crossed the Great Divide in Colorado together. We’ve visited the Red River of the North in Fargo, North Dakota that drains to the Arctic Ocean. We’ve even mentioned a small corner of Canada that drains into the Gulf of Mexico. So divides are not a new topic here and something I enjoy.

Imagine a scenario where multiple divides come together. That’s not a far-fetched concept and it occurs in various places depending on what one considers a "divide." Let’s examine North America.

Are there only three drainage basins corresponding to the three oceans, Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic? I think those are probably a given. However, what about the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Hudson Bay? Are they standalone or secondary watersheds? And what about Hudson Bay? If it doesn’t stand on it’s own merits does it "count" as an arm of the Atlantic, the Arctic or both?

The answer may even vary somewhat depending on international borders. For example, here is a Canada-centric map and here is a United States-centric version. Individual interpretations of the continental divides one chooses to recognize will result in inconsistent major and minor hydrological or hydrographic apexes (both terms seem to be used). Huh?


View Larger Map

If you’re Canadian you might consider Snow Dome to be North America’s hydrological apex. If I climbed to the top of this mountaintop with a cup of water and poured it carefully upon the summit, the water would flow to three dramatically different locations,

  • The Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River
  • The Arctic Ocean via the Athabasca River, part of the Mackenzie basin
  • The Atlantic Ocean via the North Saskatchewan River of the Nelson River basin and Hudson Bay

Let’s assume it doesn’t turn to ice on the mountaintop or flow into the ground or evaporate somewhere along the line. Those are all likely alternatives but lets keep it theoretical.

I’m not likely to ever climb the 3,456 m (11,339 ft) peak because I’m lazy and unmotivated, but if I ever do find the energy I would take heart in knowing that there are two climbing seasons, March to Mid-July on skis and Mid-July to September on foot. I learned this from Summit Post, which is a website I’ve enjoyed before while conducting research on State Highpoints. Check them out. It’s well done.

I particularly like Snow Dome not only because of its hydrological significance but because it’s also situated along the border between Alberta and British Columbia and the border between Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. Think of all the geo-oddities I could collect with a single climb!


View Larger Map

If you’re from the United States you might consider Triple Divide Peak to be North America’s hydrological apex. Triple Divide Peak is a little shorter than Snow Dome (2,444 m / 8,020 ft) but no less impressive for it’s watery significance.

  • The Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River
  • The Arctic Ocean via the the Nelson River basin and Hudson Bay
  • The Atlantic Ocean via the Missouri/Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico.

Triple Divide Peak is located in Glacier National Park in Montana. You can read about it on Wikipedia just as easily as I can so I don’t have a whole lot more to add. However if you’re considering a climb to this amazing point, consider this quote from Summit Post;

Always be aware, and don’t do anything stupid, like—for example—feed the bears, think that a mountain lion is even remotely related to your pet cat, or run up to a moose (moose are quite unpredictable, irritable, and very dangerous). And never, ever, EVER forget you’re in grizzly country; they insist on being left alone—disagreement on that point is not an argument you’ll win!

Um, no, I’m not planning to climb this one either. What I do like about Triple Divide Peak is its truth in advertising. Just look at the image above and you can clearly discern it’s pyramidal shape. There is no doubt where each dividing line runs. If you pan in various directions on the map you’ll notice a Hudson Bay Creek, a Pacific Creek, and sprouting from Medicine Grizzly Lake an Atlantic Creek. The people who discovered Triple Divide Peak’s exalted status were obviously very proud of their achievement and wanted everyone else to know. Good for them.

Does it bother you that Hudson Bay is used to justify a connection both to the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean? I’m fine with it. It does actually drain to both, and these things are kind of arbitrary anyway. The point to consider is that water will flow to three locations extremely far apart. I suppose if I were pushed into a corner and could select only one I’d probably chose Snow Dome because, let’s get serious, Hudson Bay drains way more into the Atlantic than the Arctic.

On May 6, 2009 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Hydrological Apex of North America”

  1. Paul says:

    I like your description quite well, but if your point that Hudson Bay drains both to the Arctic and the Atlantic doesn’t quite work for me: yes it does bother me! 🙂

    The best map I’ve seen describing so-called “triple divides” can be found on Wikipedia’s website under “Laurentian Divide”, which I’ll paste here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurentian_Divide

    All four of these points are impressive for the same reasons you describe, but by logic only one of them can genuinely flow into all three oceans, and that one is dependent on whether Hudson Bay flows in to the Atlantic or the Arctic. My vote goes unquestionable to Snow Dome (and I’m from the U.S.)

    I’m curious to know the answer to the following: How many points are there on Earth where water can flow to three Oceans?

    There are reallly only two continents bordering three oceans (depending on whether you claim there are four or five oceans: http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/oceans.htm), so I think just by looking at the globe, the answer to my question is two.


  2. Jeff Rundell says:

    Most geographers seem to think Hudson Bay is part of the Arctic Ocean watershed. I do not know why. By far the widest exit from Hudson Bay is Hudson Strait, which leads into the arm of the Atlantic that lies between Greenland and Labrador. My only guess for why Hudson Bay would not therefore belong to the Atlantic is that the geographers feel sorry for the Arctic, it being easily the smallest ocean and all.

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