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Join us on an around-the-world tour of EarthWords: Foreign Language Edition!

EarthWords is an on-going series in which we shed some light on the complicated, often difficult-to-pronounce language of science. Think of us as your terminology tour-guides, and meet us back here every week for a new word!

Last week, we finished our first alphabetic run of EarthWords! To celebrate, we're going on a round-the-world tour, visiting 5 countries and learning an EarthWord in their language. Join us south of the border at our first stop:

A panorama of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. Credit: G. Thomas (talk · contribs) - Own work, Public Domain,

The Word: Sierra

Sierra is a Spanish word that can translate either as a mountain range or a saw. It comes from the Latin word serra, which means “saw,” and it’s easy to see how the word came to mean mountain range as well.  In geologic terms, a “sierra” is a mountain range having a series of jagged peaks that resemble a saw. Possessing the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, Mexico has quite a few sierras!

By the Bullets

Image: Garden Wall Weather Station, MT
The Garden Wall, an arête in Glacier National Park, in Montana. In addition, the image shows a  Weather Station adjacent to the Haystack Creek avalanche path in Glacier National Park. Credit: Suzanna Soileau, USGS.

The Word: Arête 

Our next stop is across the pond to France, where we navigate a narrow ridgeline to the word "arête." An arête is a jagged narrow ridge that separates two adjacent glacier valleys. Arête is a French word that refers to the bones in a fish backbone. With the Alps on its eastern border, France has ample arêtes.   

By the Bullets

Image shows a flood of water surrounded by mountains and ice. Credit: Oddur Sigurðsson, Iceland Meteorological Office

The Word: Jökulhlaup

North, now, to ice-capped Iceland! Iceland, the land that coined the term jökulhlaup, has dozens of volcanoes that are buried beneath glaciers or icecaps. When these volcanoes erupt, they can lead to glacial outburst floods, where the water that melted from the volcano’s eruption breaks the ice dam of the glacier or ice cap, creating a massive and potentially devastating flood. Read more.

By the Bullets

  • The Language: Icelandic

  • The Meaning: “glacier run” or “glacial outburst flood”

  • Famous Examples:

    • The Missoula Floods, which occurred  across Montana, Idaho, and Washington during the last Ice Age

    • Iceland’s Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap by volume in Europe and where the term jökulhlaup was first used

Mount Fuji, the most famous volcano in Japan. By DoctorJoeE - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Word: 火山 (Kazan)

Our next stop is across the world and into the Pacific Ocean. Japan is one of the most volcanically and seismically active countries in the world. It sits atop the edges of several moving tectonic plates, including the Pacific Plate, which means it’s included in the Pacific Ring of Fire. All of this seismic activity leads to volcanoes playing a significant role in Japanese history and culture.

By the Bullets

  • The Language: Japanese

  • The Meaning: Volcano

  • Famous Examples: Obviously the most famous Japanese volcano is Mt. Fuji.

A Giant Panda, an endangered species endemic to China. By J. Patrick Fischer - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Word: 生物多样性 (Shēngwù duōyàng xìng)

Last, but not least, to the Middle Kingdom. Biodiversity refers to the number and variety of living things in an area, including plants, animals, bacteria, etc. It’s an important part of a healthy ecosystem, and it’s under threat all over the world. This is a topic of concern in China, because part of the shrinking biodiversity in China is the threat to their iconic species, the Giant Panda.

By the Bullets

  • The Language: Mandarin Chinese (Simplified)

  • The Meaning: Biodiversity

  • Famous Examples: China has quite a few hotspots for biodiversity, but one of the most prominent ones is the mountains of southwest China. This area is home to famous and endangered species like the giant panda, the red panda, and the golden snub-nosed monkey, just to name a few.

Next EarthWord: Think the ground is always solid? Not when it gets all shook up...

Hungry for some science, but you don’t have time for a full-course research plate? Then check out USGS Science Snippets, our snack-sized science series that focuses on the fun, weird, and fascinating stories of USGS science.