The Continental Divide Determines Where Rain Goes After it Hits the Ground

Most people are familiar with the various types of precipitation that falls from the sky. However, have you ever wondered where all that water goes after it falls or melts? The answer is largely dependent on what side of the continental divide it landed.

A continental divide is a natural boundary that separates the river systems of a continent. They are usually tall mountain ranges that direct the flow of rivers and streams to different oceans. Essentially, any precipitation that falls or melts on one side will flow into one ocean basin and anything that falls or melts on the other side of the divide will flow into another basin.

Sign in Rocky Mountain National Park marks the location of the Continental Divide in CO. Credit: Melissa Fleming

Every continent has at least one and some have multiple. In the United States, the main divide is the Rocky Mountains. It is part of the Great Continental Divide of the Americas, which runs from western Alaska through the Andes Mountains in South America. It separates water that runs into the Atlantic Ocean from water that flows into the Arctic or Pacific Oceans.

In some cases, water finds its way into an endorheic basin with no outlet to an ocean.  Utah’s Great Salt Lake and Oregon’s Crater Lake are well known examples.  Here, the water re-enters the water cycle via evaporation. A small percentage of precipitating water also seeps into the ground where it replenishes soil moisture and underground aquifers. That said, the vast majority of water returns to the world’s oceans where it will eventually be evaporated and fall as precipitation again somewhere on the planet.

North America has several drainage divides, but the Great Divide (red) is the largest. Credit: