Geographic and Geological Aspects of Costa Rica (Final)

This topic submitted by Bryan Glosik ( at 7:00 PM on 5/15/04.

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Costa Rica not only provides a habitat for 5% of the world’s biodiversity, but also is a great example of the non-living geological processes of the planet earth. The geography as well as geology of the country has a great affect on the life that lives their. Everywhere from the tropical lowlands, central valley, to the northwest peninsula all have their own geologic and geographic characteristics. With in these geographic divisions lies the very beating heart of what makes Costa Rica’s geology so intriguing. The mountain ranges of the country both volcanic and non-volcanic provide some of the best examples of the subducting of an oceanic plate with a continental plate. That results in the formation of Arenal Volcano, which is one of the most active volcanoes in the world today. The mountain ranges also have a vast impact on the biodiversity of the country with what are known as cloud forests like the Monteverde Cloud forest.

The four main geographical areas of Costa Rica are the tropical lowlands on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the north central plains, and the central valley and northwest peninsula. (infocostarica, p.1) In even more specific political terms there are seven provinces inside the country. The first province is Guanacaste. The weather throughout this region can be seen in two parts. It has a distinct wet and dry season. (Garrigues, 1996). There is one part of the province though that has an increase in elevation in the Guanacaste Cordillera mountain range. (Garrigues, 1996) This increased elevation of the volcanic mountain range has cool moist forests which are habitat to many species in the country. The second province is Alajuela. It is located to the side of the Volcanic Cordillera going north to Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua. This area was once covered by extensive rainforest until the area in recent years was totally reshaped by agricultural development. (Garrigues, 1996) The third is Cartago. Due to Cartago’s high altitude on the Caribbean coast results in relatively cool temperatures throughout the year when being compared to the well known extremely hot areas of Costa Rica. (Garrigues, 1996) The fourth province of Heredia is a part of the Volcanic Cordillera and Central Valley, but is predominantly in the Northern lowlands just south of Nicaragua. This provides for a variety of climates everywhere from cool moist areas to a dryer and hotter environment. (Garrigues, 1996) Next you have the province of Limon. Limon stretches along the Caribbean coast form the mouth of the San Juan River to the Sixaola River. “The southern sector includes a large area of mountainous terrain that stretches up to the country's highest peak, Mt. Chirripó, in the Talamanca Cordillera. Likewise, the provincial boundaries also climb to over 2,000 m. in elevation on the northeastern flank of Turrialba Volcano.” (Garrigues, 1996) Puntareanas is the largest at 11,277 sq. km. (Garrigues, 1996) It includes everything from dry tropical forests to tropical rainforests and is located on the Pacific side. Lastly there is San Jose. This province, like Putareanas, also experiences almost every climatic condition found in the country. (Garrigues, 1996) San Jose is also where the majority of the population lives.

The mountain ranges or “Cordillera” of Costa Rica are a very important part of the Geography and Geology of Costa Rica. There are four ranges that run through out the country. The first is Cordilleras de Telemanca which is not only the countries southern most but oldest mountain range. Apart of that mountain range is Mt. Chirripo which is the highest peak in Costa Rica standing at 12,500 feet or 3,820 meters. (Rara Avis) Then there is the Central Volcanic Range. It includes Poas Volcano, Barava Volcano, Irazu Volcan, and the Turrialba Volcano. ( Next is the Tilaran Range which reaches up to 5,000 feet at the Monteverde Cloud Forest. (Rara Avis) To the Northwest of the Tilaran Range lies the Guanacaste Range. The Guanacaste Range is home to Costa Rica’s most famous volcano, Arenal Volcano. (Rara Avis) In the midst of all these mountain ranges though, lies the Meseta Central. Meseta Central is a high plateau which is excellent for farming due to its soil of consisting of rich volcanic ash which was layed over millions of years. (Rara Avis)

In order to understand these mountain ranges better you must look at the orogenesis of the ranges or how they were formed. There are two plates, the Cocos
Plate and Caribbean plate, in which the subducting is occurring. The subducting causes both the uplift of rock and sediment but also volcanic activity. (Bradley, 2003) The oceanic tectonic plate (Cocos Plate) slides underneath the countries continental plate resulting in the melting of it. (Bradley, 2003) “The resulting magma is less dense than the surrounding rock, so it rises up toward the surface where it collects in magma chambers.” ( Once the magma gets to the chambers it triggers a volcanic eruption. ( This process happens over millions and millions of years causing the formation of mountains on top of the plate. ( Although Costa Rica has not had a catastrophic event since prehistoric times, it is said that one will occur within the next few hundred thousand years. (Bradley, 2003) The damage that a volcano can do are done mainly by their pyroclastic flows which “are high-speed avalanches of hot ash, rock fragments, and gas that race down the sides of volcanoes during explosive eruptions or when the steep edge of a dome breaks apart and collapses. These pyroclastic flows, move at over 100 km per hour, knocking down and burning everything in their path with scorching matter at more than 500 Celsius.” (Bradley, 2003) In the central plateau of Costa Rica, it is home to more than half of the countries population which is surrounded by a few large volcanoes that are still active. (Bradley, 2003) Even though there is no immediate threat for the next few hundred thousand years Costa Rica is never the less a perfect set up for such a catastrophic event.

Within these volcanic and mountainous ranges lies some of the most lush and life thriving forests in the world. The increase in elevation creates forests known as cloud forests. A cloud forest is “a mountain forest that exists in perpetual mist, characterized by stunted trees with an abundance in epiphytic growth.” ( Kricher, p.391) Due to the high altitude of the forests it is much cooler than the standard tropical forest and other tropical ecosystems. ( As mentioned earlier in the paper, Costa Rica is home to the Monteverde Cloud Forests which is a host to a large number of plants and animals. It has 425 bird species with a significant amount of insects as well. ( The occurring problem of global warming however is a growing concern for these cloud forests. Global warming is causing the clouds in the forest to rise leaving it warmer and dryer. ( This geographic marvel not only benefits the things that live in it but around it as well. They are a huge part of the hydrological processes of the surrounding area. ( They retain and filter water that drains into rivers and surrounding peoples of the area. (

In much of the tropics such as the Amazon Basin, the soils are very old and poor in nutrients. (Kircher, p.52) In Costa Rica though, the soils are much younger due to the volcanic activity of the area. (Kircher, p.52) This provides for much more nutrient rich soils which are great for farming. Such kinds of soils found in the region are entisols and inceptisols. (Kircher, p.52) They are “young soils of recent origin, rich in minerals near the surface, with higher pH (still acid but closer to neutral).” (Kircher, p.52) At the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, it said that bout one third of all soils there are inceptisols and entisols which are very fertile because of its recent organic origin. (Kircher, p.52) The rest of the soils found are much more acidic, older, and less fertile and are ultisols. (Kircher, p.52)

It’s clearly seen that both geography and geology have an important role throughout Costa Rica. It affects not only the species of the forests but the people who live in the country. Its geographic landscape makes for some of the most beautiful scenery but at the same time can erupt into a relentless force of pyroclastic destruction. These aspects will always for thousands and thousands of years have an adverse effect on the surrounding region. It is important though that we remember our role in preserving it as well. The benefits of Costa Rica’s landscape and life far out weigh the reasons for destroying it.


Kricher, John A Neotropical Companion. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. 1997.

Costa Rica
Richard Garrigues 1996.

The Geography of Costa Rica
Rara Avis 1995.

Geography: Overview
Infocostarica staff

Time to Worry?
David Bradley 2003

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