The Lowest of High Points: The 15 Least Elevated Countries on Earth

It’s only fair that since I wrote a column a few months ago on the 15 countries with the highest low points that I should look at the other side of the coin and look at the 15 countries with the lowest high points. This list is a bit more complicated, since assembling the list means having to make a decision on whether or not dependent territories should be included. They don’t come close to factoring in on the previous list, since all dependent territories as listed in the ISO 3166-1 standard just happen to border upon oceans. Dependent territories play a huge role in this list, however, since the majority of dependent territories are made up of islands, so I’ll include them in this article. There is no disputing pole position here, regardless:

1. Maldives: 2.4 m, Vilingili, Seenu Atoll. The Maldives may consist of 1 192 islands based around the tops of a sunken mountain chain, but none of them are higher than a paltry 2.4 metres above sea level, a few centimetres shorter than the world’s tallest living person. It is unsurprising that the country’s president is openly contemplating purchasing land in neighbouring countries to resettle the inhabitants of the country should rising sea levels eventually overwhelm the archipelago.

2. Tuvalu: 4.5 m, NiulakitaNiulakita is the southernmost and least-populated of the atolls that make up this South Pacific nation that may perhaps be most famous for its .tv top-level Internet domain. The island is so small that it doesn’t even show up on Google Earth satellite imagery, and is represented in Google Maps by a simple hexagon. Seven of Tuvalu’s nine coral islands may actually be overcoming the effects of rising sea level at the moment as coral debris accumulates on beaches, but how long this can continue to offset rising waters is anyone’s guess. With all of its population living in areas below 2 metres above sea level, the country is quite vulnerable.

T3. Tokelau: 5 m, AtafuThe New Zealand territory of Tokelau in the South Pacific is particularly vulnerable to typhoons. 2005’s Cyclone Percy put the other two atolls of Tokelau, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo, under a metre of water.

T3. Cocos (Keeling) Islands: 5 m, South Keeling. Lying halfway between Sri Lanka and Western Australia in the Indian Ocean, the islands have been settled since 1825. The majority of their residents are descendants of ethnic Malays brought to the islands to harvest coconuts. Until 1978, they were ruled by the Clunies-Ross family as a private fiefdom. Today, they are under the purview of Australia.

Cocos(keeling)_76

5. Marshall Islands: 10 m, Likiep. The land area of Likiep Atoll is only 10.3 km2, but it surrounds a 423 km2 lagoon.

6. British Indian Ocean Territory: 15 m, Diego Garcia: One of the first stories I wrote on this website was about the removal of the entire population of Diego Garcia to Mauritius in order to convert the island into a US military base. Diego Garcia is one of the world’s largest atolls, and is known for having some of the most pristine water on the planet.

7. Cayman Islands: 42.6 m, The Bluff, Cayman Brac. The first point on our list not made out of coral sand is on the easternmost of the Caymans. While the rest of the Caymans are formed from large coral heads, the Bluff is a limestone outcrop that rises out of the centre of the island and extends along the length of Cayman Brac (brac is Gaelic for ‘bluff’).

Typical Cayman Brac bluff terrain

Photo: C. Eliot, http://www.flickr.com/photos/eliotc/2347709909/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence.

8. Turks and Caicos Islands: 49 m, Blue Hills, Providenciales. The highest point of the British territory lies on its most popular tourist island in the town of Blue Hills. The Turks and Caicos are primarily flat, limestone islands with extensive swamps and beaches.

9. The Gambia: 53 m, Red Rock. The flattest country that isn’t an island. The unique finger-like shape of the country is a result of an 1889 British-French agreement; Britain retained control of the lower Gambia River valley, but France controlled the land surrounding it (modern Senegal). Because of this agreement, the country is never wider than 48 kilometres, and as the boundaries don’t extend anywhere beyond any point 16 km from the river, the Gambia is extremely flat as a result despite extending nearly 330 km into the interior of West Africa. It only makes sense, then, that the highest point is the point on the border furthest inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

10. The Bahamas: 63 m, Mount Alvernia, Cat Island. Mount Alvernia is the site of a Catholic hermitage built in the 1940s by a Catholic priest /architect named John Hawes, who retired here in 1939 to live as a hermit. He is buried in a cave underneath the hermitage.

11. Anguilla: 65 m, Crocus Hill. Anguilla is 26 km long by 5 km wide, and lies in the Caribbean between the Virgin Islands and Saint Martin. Like the Bahamas, it is comprised of fossil coral and limestone, and the soil is extremely poor. Anguilla relies on tourism and offshore banking to support its economy.

12. Niue: 68 m, Mutalau. Self-governing in free association with New Zealand, the so-called ‘Rock of Polynesia’ is one of the largest coral islands in the world (269 km2). Niue is rimmed by steep limestone cliffs, and its soils have some of the highest natural levels of radioactivity in the world. Like Tuvalu and Tokelau, Niue’s small economy benefits from its possession of an advantageous country-level Internet domain (in this case, .nu). The entire country is now covered by a solar-powered WiFi hotspot, which is important for communicating with family members (90% of people of Niuean descent now live in New Zealand, seeking stable employment).

13. Nauru: 71 m, Command Ridge. Command Ridge is the strip of land between the village of Aiwo and Buada Lagoon, Nauru’s only lake. The ridge is home to a large amount of debris left behind from Japanese occupation during World War II (everything from naval guns to typewriters to beer bottles). Most of the land on Nauru has been decimated by intensive phosphate mining, which covered 90% of the country and turned it into a moonscape. 63% of the mined land is covered by new vegetation, but the damage is done.

14. Vatican City: 75 m, Vatican Hill. The hill from which the world’s smallest state takes its name is the hill on which it is built. The highest point on the hill is occupied by the Vatican Radio building and its communication mast.

661px-Vatican-radio

Source: J. Sherurcij, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vatican-radio.jpg. Licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

15. Bermuda: 76 m, Town Hill, Hamilton Parish. Bermuda is of volcanic origin and was originally located along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Over time, the westward drift of the North American Plate has pulled Bermuda away from the ridge; it is much older than other islands formed in the ridge such as Iceland or the Azores. Over time, the islands subsided with age; eventually, like other islands close to sea level, they were covered with a limestone cap generated by calcium-secreting marine organisms.

Further Reading

Henley, J. (2008). The last days of paradise. The Guardian, 11 November 2008. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/nov/11/climatechange-endangered-habitats-maldives. Accessed 11 May 2011.

Squires, N. (2007). The man who lost a ‘coral’ kingdom. BBC News, 7 June 2007. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/6730047.stm. Accessed 11 May 2011.

Nearby Articles