The Line of Largest Settlements

What are the northernmost/southernmost cities in the world? It’s a somewhat ambiguous question whose answers depends on how you define a city versus a town versus a settlement and how minute one wants to get. Alert, Nunavut may be the northernmost permanently occupied settlement, but it hardly qualifies as a city. The same goes for the Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the South Pole – it may be permanently occupied, but no one is a permanent resident, and the population fluctuates seasonally.

One way to put in context the issue of what constitutes the northernmost and southernmost ‘insert level of settlement size here’ is to create something called a ‘line of largest settlements’. Using data from the invaluable (and supplemented by censes for places with ultra-small populations), we can trace a line of largest settlements from one end of the Earth to the other. Each end of the line starts with the northernmost & southernmost permanent settlements on Earth (excluding Antarctic research stations, whose populations are wildly variable from season-to-season and year-to-year) and progresses toward toward the next northernmost/southernmost settlement or urban agglomeration. Under the proviso that the two ends of the line will ultimately meet in Tokyo, with an urban agglomeration population of 34 700 000, how many steps will it take to get there from each side of the planet?


0 – Alert, Nunavut, Canada (northernmost permanent settlement), 82°28′ N

52 – Nagurskoye, Arkhangel’sk, Russia, 80°48′ N

2 170 – Longyearbyen, Svalbard (northernmost capital of a dependent territory or administrative subdivision), 78°12′ N

3 450 – Khatanga, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, 71°59′ N

5 023 – Tiksi, Sakha, Russia, 71°39′ N

7 119 – Hammerfest, Finnmark, Norway, 70°39′ N

14 439 – Alta, Finnmark, Norway, 69°58′ N

58 486 – Tromsø, Troms, Norway, 69°40′ N

177 738 – Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, 69°21′ N

302 468 – Murmansk, Murmansk, Russia, 68°58′ N

350 985 – Arkhangel’sk, Arkhangel’sk, Russia, 64°32′ N

1 159 211 – Helsinki, Uusimaa, Finland, 60°10′ N

5 150 000 – Saint Petersburg, Russia, 59°57′ N

16 300 000 – Moscow, Russia, 55°45′ N

21 600 000 – New York, United States, 40°40′ N

25 600 000 – Seoul, South Korea, 37°34′ N

34 700 000 – Tokyo, Japan, 35°41′ N

26 400 000 – Guangzhou, China, 23°08′ N

26 000 000 – Jakarta, Indonesia, 6°12′ S

21 400 000 – São Paulo, Brazil, 23°33′ S

14 500 000 – Buenos Aires, Argentina, 34º36′ S

4 084 993 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 37º49′ S

375 900 – Christchurch, New Zealand, 43º31′ S

135 632 – Comodoro Rivadavia, Chubut, Argentina, 45º51′ S

116 005 – Punta Arenas, Magallanes, Chile, 53º17′ S

66 900 – Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, 53º45′ S

56 500 – Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, 54º48′ S

2 874 – Puerto Williams, Magallanes, Chile, 54°56′ S

36 – Puerto Toro, Magallanes, Chile, 55º05′ S

4 – Cabo de Hornos Station, Magallanes, Chile, 55º59′ S


In all, there are 16 settlements/towns/cities to go through from the north versus 13 from the south; an illustration of how much more of the southern hemisphere is covered by water commpared to the northern hemisphere. Starting from Alert, the line travels to Nagurskoye, an airfield on Alexandra Island in Franz Josef Land, the ice -covered and de jure uninhabited remote Russian archipelago at the top of Eurasia (if one were to remove military settlements from the equation, the polar research village of Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, lying at 78°55′ N with a population of 35, would be the beginning of the line). The first true city/town we come across is Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard. The line then travels back and forth between Russia and Norway as eventually the first metropolitan cities (Tromsø and Norilsk) are encountered, followed by the first national capital (Helsinki, the northernmost urban agglomeration with a seven-digit population). From there, it’s a quick progression through nearby Saint Petersburg and Moscow, a big jump over to New York, and then over to Seoul before meeting the southern half of the line in Tokyo. It’s rather interesting to see how much of that line is contained within western Russia and the Nordic region.

With South America being the southernmost non-Antarctic continent by some degree, it’s not surprising that Chile and Argentina dominate much of the southern half of the line. The southern half begins at Chile’s Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) lighthouse station and criss-crosses the Tierra del Fuego archipelago split between Chile and Argentina. Puerto Williams is the southernmost town of size (the designation is so important to the town and to national identity that Chile’s National Statistics Institute gives it an official ‘urban’ designation despite the country’s nominal standard of needing 5 000 residents to have such status). The next stop on the line, Ushuaia, Argentina, is the first metropolitan area on the list. By the time the line leaves Tierra del Fuego and the Strait of Magellan at Punta Arenas, the line has already crossed the six-digit threshold for population. After a quick jaunt to Australasia to take in Christchurch and Melbourne, the line heads back to Argentina via Buenos Aires, the workd;s southernmost megalopolis. From there, the line goes up the Atlantic coast to São Paulo, into Asia at Jakarta, and then crosses the equator to head to Guangzhou (which may become the new meeting point of this line in a few years’ time) before meeting with the northern half of the line in Tokyo.

The concept can also be applied to to individual regions and countries, and if the region you select doesn’t span all 360 degrees of the globe, you can also add the extra dimension of west-to-east. In our next post, we’ll look at some examples.

Further Reading

Brinkoff, T. (2013). Available at Accessed 18 September 2013.

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