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In this lesson, you’ll learn the defining characteristics of an isthmus and find out this landform’s importance in navigation, commerce, and social relations. We’ll also examine three specific isthmuses.

What Is an Isthmus?

An isthmus is a narrow piece of land that connects two larger bodies of land.

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Isthmuses are bordered by water on both sides. Simple, right? Yes, but also important. Isthmuses enable migration and ease of transport from one major landmass to another. This tiny topographical feature has transformed history and changed the way nations interact with one another.

Isthmuses Around the World

Isthmuses can be found around the world. Some connect continents or nations, but they can even be found on a smaller scale. For example, Seattle is a city built on an isthmus connecting Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

Isthmuses are found in Chile, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Russia, New Zealand, and Greece.You might have heard of the Isthmus of Gibraltar (connecting Gibraltar and Spain), or you might know that there are several isthmuses in the Mediterranean. Let’s take a look at three famous isthmuses and see what makes them so important.

The Isthmus of Panama

One of the most famous examples of the isthmus landform is the Isthmus of Panama. The Panama isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects Costa Rica and Colombia. Essentially, the Isthmus of Panama connects North and South America. It is bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

The isthmus is particularly famous because of its well-traveled waterway: the Panama Canal, a manmade waterway through the Panama Isthmus. Since its opening in 1914, the canal has remained one of the most effective transit routes from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.Before the canal, ships wishing to cross between oceans would have to sail all the way around South America in order to move to the other side, a costly, time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous journey. The 48-mile canal cut months off the journey and made trade between either side of Central America much easier. So, the Isthmus of Panama and its canal play a vital role in commercial and geographical interests in the region.

The Isthmus of Suez

Aligned in a North to South manner, the Isthmus of Suez is one of the most important landforms in the world.

It separates the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea, and at the same time, it links Africa and Asia to one another and creates a pathway for Europe to access other regions of the world.Like Panama’s isthmus, the Isthmus of Suez is home to an important waterway. The Suez Canal allows for travel between the Mediterranean and Red seas, creating shipping lanes between Europe and Asia without having go around Africa. The Isthmus of Suez is also vital in terms of oil production and delivery. Many nations and millions of people depend on the Suez and its canal for economic stability.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec

Though not as well known as Suez and Panama, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico is another example of the landform.

Tehuantepec connects Mexico and Guatemala and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The Isthmus serves as a gateway to and from Central America.Prior to the Panama Canal, Tehuantepec was used as a primary means of navigating vessels from one body of water to another. Tehuantepec represents how vital an isthmus is as it unifies marine and land based terrain.

Lesson Summary

An isthmus is a thin strip of land surrounded by water on two sides, which connects two larger landmasses.

Isthmuses appear all over the globe, in every shape and size. Despite their small stature–and their funny name–these landforms play key roles in economics, geopolitics, and even the survival of some reagions.The Isthmus of Panama, for example, has made possible the creation of the Panama Canal. Today, the canal is an extremely important throughway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, enabling shipping routes to cross the continent quickly and safely. The Isthmus of Suez and its canal have enabled travel and shipping from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, connecting Europe with Asia and Asia with Africa. There are many other isthmuses to be found just about anywhere, from Seattle to New Zealand. See if you can think of one near where you are.

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