Arranging Ranges: Mountain Ranges of the World

The Mountain Range Classification System (PEMRACS)

Range Hierarchy Simple Chart
Click Here to Start browsing the web pages for the ranges of the World, starting with the World itself.

This page is the gateway for browsing the Mountain Range Classification System (PEMRACS), a huge, consistent, hierarchical database that divides the entire land surface of the earth into ranges and subranges.

There are tens of thousands of named ranges and mountain groupings on the planet, varying greatly in size, elevation span, and mountaineering interest. Often, smaller ranges are nested within other ranges, and larger ranges contain numerous sub-ranges. Comparing ranges and creating lists of range high points is difficult if all ranges in the world are treated equally. For an extreme example, any system that treats the Himalaya range of Asia and the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey as equivalent is next to useless.

The core of the PEMRACS is a classification of the world's ranges into a six-level hierarchy, with the general idea that all ranges at the same level are roughly equivalent in extent and interest. The six levels are simply called Range1, Range2, and so on, down to Range6. A Range1 is equivalent to a continent, while a Range6 is a tiny massif or range of just a few peaks.

The PEMRACS is set up so that every Range1 through Range5 is completely divided into between 2 and 10 non-overlapping Ranges of the next lower level. For example, a Range2 will be divided into a number of Range3s, and each one of those in turn is divided into Range4s. For example, the Rocky mountains (a Range2) is divided into Range3s like the Canadian Rockies, the Yellowstone area Rockies, and the Southern Rockies. In turn, the Southern Rockies Range3 is divided into Range4s like the Sawatch Range and the San Juan Mountains.

Note that every level is chock-full of bogus ranges with bogus-sounding names like "North Eureka County Ranges" or "Shavers Fork Mountain Complex" that are needed to fill out the master outline. Very few mountains will have well-known and established range names for all six levels of ranges. Most commonly, peaks are in one or two commonly used ranges: Mount Rainier is in the Cascade Range; Mount Elbert is in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. Some peaks might have three well-known ranges—for example, Mount Washington in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of the Appalachian Mountains. And some peaks have no ranges at all—Kilimajaro springs to mind. So, in order to classify these peaks into all six levels, the slots missing familiar names are filled with bogus ranges.

It is very important to note that this elaborate scheme contains some arbitrary elements. When classifying the ranges, I had to make innumerable judgment calls, and the bogus placeholder ranges may look wrong to people more familiar with their local mountain areas than I am. And the very notion of six levels is just the number that felt right for this kind of work. That said, however, a great deal of effort went into ensuring that the ranges with established names and extents are reflected accurately.

Aside from being a way to see just what the various child-parent relationships among ranges are, the principal application of PEMRACS is in making consistent and meaningful lists. Any sort of ranking or tabulation of ranges can be created by selecting only ranges at one certain level (1 through 6), ensuring that all the ranges in your list will be roughly equivalent. Then your list of range high points, range area, or ranges you have climbed in will be at least more meaningful.

As a example, without a classification system the list of the range high points of North America could have thousands of entries for everything from the high point of a major chain like the Rocky Mountains down to that of a low range of minor hills. However, if you want a list of the Range2 high points, you have a list of 10 peaks that all crown major ranges or extensive areas of land. Or, you could pick a list of the Range3 high points (60 summits in North America) or Range4 high points (199 summits in the USA and Canada).

Rules used in creating the PEMRACS:

  • All land in the world is included in the PEMRACS, including all plains and lowlands.
  • Exisiting, established nomenclature and extent are the primary determination of a range's boundaries.
  • Bodies of water, rivers, valleys, and low passes are used wherever possible as the boundaries between ranges.
  • Wherever possible, real names for physical features are to be used. Official range names are always the first choice, but an area of mountains may be named after the highland, plateau, island, archipelago, plains, valley, or other physical feature that defines the area best.
  • When a range or mountain grouping has no clear name, a bogus name is created, using real range names, directional indicators, political unit names, or whatever other logical name best describes the area.
  • No officially-named range can be split into arbitrary child sections unless the entire range is a single entity at the parent level. For example, the PEMRACS has 3 entries for the arbitrarily-defined northern, central, and southern Wind River Range. This means that the entire Wind River Range, by itself, must be the parent of these sub-ranges. The parent of those 3 can not be something like "Central Wyoming Ranges" or "Wind River and Gros Ventre Ranges".
  • As much as possible, every range at every level should have a well-defined peak for its high point. There should be no issues with boundary conditions, sub-peaks, shoulders, and other distractions that arise when determining high points of political units. Ideally, a range high point should be prominent, centrally located, and well-known.
  • Lowlands present special problems in classifying all the world's land into ranges. In some cases I have included adjacent lowlands with the mountains they abut, but when the lowlands are extensive and have their own well-known name, I have created special "ranges" for them and whatever hills they may contain. For example, the Great Plains of North America are their own extensive Range3 and include areas like the Black Hills and the Sand Hills as sub-ranges.
  • The boundaries between mountains and lowlands (for example, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains) are often a tricky place to draw a line. Following a certain contour line that follows the base of the moutains goes against the rule of always using major rivers or low passes as range dividers, as well as the prominent high point rule (using a contour often means no clear, prominent high point for the lowland "range"). My solution has been to draw the line along rivers when they parallel the base of the mountains, and to cut arbitraily across plains to connect rivers as needed.

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