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Contrasting Landscapes of the American West
Credit: ESA

The contrasting landscapes of the American West are on display in this image taken by the European Space Agency's Envisat satellite. Verdant California lies to the left of the images, separated by the white, snowy peaks of the mountains from the brown of Nevada's deserts.

California boasts a 840-mile-long (1,350 kilometers) coastline , valleys and numerous mountain ranges that run generally parallel to the Pacific Ocean. The Coast Ranges, a series of mountains that includes the Diablo and Santa Cruz Mountains, extend along much of the coast.

The flat, broad depression to the east of the Coast Ranges is the 450-mile-long (720 km) Central Valley. Its northern half referred to as the Sacramento Valley receives more rainfall and is lush, while its southern half called the San Joaquin Valley has a more arid climate. Centred on agriculture, the valley's productivity relies on irrigation from surface water diversions and groundwater pumping from wells.

The Sierra Nevada mountain range (snow-capped, east of Central Valley) runs along California's eastern edge. Lake Tahoe is located in the Sierra Nevada on the CaliforniaNevada border.

It is no coincidence that the land west of the Sierra Nevada is lush, while the land to its east is desert. The mountain range forces moisture from easterly-moving clouds to be released before reaching Nevada.

Nevada's landscape comprises sandy deserts, snow-capped mountains and basins. Most of the state lies within the Great Basin Desert. Covering an arid expanse of some 190,000 square miles (492,000 sq km), it is the largest U.S. desert. The Great Basin is noted for its internal drainage system, in which precipitation never reaches an outlet to the sea.

Also visible in the image are the California cities of San Francisco (the whitish area on the peninsula surrounding the San Francisco Bay, center left) and Los Angeles (sprawling grey area, bottom left).