The Elevation Span of Every Country in the World
View the high resolution version of today’s graphic by clicking here.
Giant countries like Canada or Russia can take their sprawling landmasses for granted, but for smaller oceanic nations, topography takes on greater importance.
In the Indian Ocean, ringed by protective barriers, lies the island city of Malé – the capital of the Maldives. Malé has a thriving tourism industry and is one of the most urbanized islands in the world, but it has one major problem: its elevation (or lack thereof).
Over 80% of the nation’s landmass is below 3.3 ft (1m), leaving it acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. If sea levels continue to rise, the entire chain of islands, including the homes of half a million people, could be submerged in as soon as 30 years.
Breaking out the measuring stick
Today’s data visualization, via Fascinating Maps, is a global breakdown of every country’s elevation span, from the severe mountain peaks that dominate Bhutan’s landscape, to the sweltering Dead Sea depression that runs along the Israel–Jordan border.
By looking at the data, we see interesting patterns and unique situations emerge.
The Power of Zero: The median low-end land elevation of the world’s countries is zero. This is because shoreline typically makes up the lowest portion of a country’s terra firma. It’s easy to spot a landlocked country in the data set, as its lowest elevation is far more likely to be above sea level.
The Lowlands: In general, the smallest countries tend to have the smallest elevation spans, but some countries buck that trend. Denmark, which has a respectable 16,577 quare miles (42,933 sq. km) of land, has an elevation range of only 583 ft (178m). This means the highest point in the country is only 50m taller than its tallest building, Herlev Hospital, near Copenhagen.
The Highlands: Three countries – Nepal, Tajikistan, and Bhutan – have an average elevation that soars above 10,000 ft (3,050m). The latter country has the highest average elevation in the world.
Bhutan Elevation Map:
Supersized Elevation Span: China has the the largest elevation span of any country on Earth. The average elevation of the country skews high, thanks in part to the Tibetan Plateau. A number of the highest permanent settlements in the world exist in this region.
Visualizing Population Density Patterns in Six Countries
These maps show the population density of several countries, using 3D spikes to denote where more people live.
As of 2022, Earth has 8 billion humans. By 2050, the population is projected to grow to 10 billion.
In the last 50 years, the global population more than quadrupled. But none of this growth has been evenly spread out, including within countries.
This series of 3D maps from Terence Teo, an associate professor at Seton Hall University, renders the population density of six countries using open-source data from Kontur Population. He used popular programming language R and a path-tracing package, Rayshader, to create the maps.
France and Germany: Population Density Spikes and Troughs
Let’s take a look at how the population spreads out in different countries around the world. Click the images to explore higher-resolution versions.
France is the world’s 7th largest economy and second-most-populous country in the EU with 65 million people. But a staggering one-fifth of the French population lives in Paris and its surrounding metro—the most populous urban area in Europe.
Many residents in the Paris metropolitan area are employed in the service sector, which makes up one-third of France’s $2.78 trillion gross domestic product.
Unlike France, Germany has many dense cities and regions, with Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne all having over a million residents. Berlin is the most populated at 3.5 million residents in the city proper, and 6 million in the wider urban area.
That said, the relatively recent reunification of West and East Germany in 1991 meant that post-WWII growth was mostly concentrated in West Germany (and West Berlin).
Italy and Chile: Coast to Coast
In Italy, another phenomenon affects population density and urban development—a sprawling coastline.
Despite having a large population of 59 million and large metropolitan areas throughout, Italy’s population spikes are closer to the water.
The port cities of Genoa, Napoli, and Palermo all have large spikes relative to the rest of the country, as does the capital, Rome. Despite its city center located 15 miles inland from the sea, it extends to the shore through the district of Ostia, where the ancient port of Rome existed.
Meanwhile in Chile, stuck between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, population spikes corroborate with its many port towns and cities.
However, the country is more concentrated than Italy, with 40% of its residents congregating around the capital of Santiago.
Turkey and Canada: Marred by Mountains and Climes
Though Chile has difficulties with terrain, it is relatively consistent. Other countries have to attempt to settle many different climes—regions defined by their climates.
Mountains to the south and east, a large, semi-arid plateau, and even a small desert leave few centers of urban growth in Türkiye.
Predictably, further west, as the elevation comes down to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, population spikes begin to heighten. The largest of course is the economic and cultural hub of Istanbul, though the capital Ankara is also prominent with more than 5 million residents.
In Canada, the Rocky Mountains to the west and freezing cold temperatures in the center and north account for the large country’s relative emptiness.
Though population spikes in Western Canada are growing rapidly, highly populous urban centers are noticeably concentrated along the St. Lawrence River, with the Greater Toronto Area accounting for more than one-sixth of the country’s 39 million people.
According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and that trend is only growing.
By 2050, 7 out of 10 people are projected to live in cities. This congregation makes cities a beehive of productivity and innovation—with more than 80% of the world’s GDP being generated at these population centers.
It’s in this context that mapping and studying urban development becomes all the more important, particularly as policymakers try their hand at sustainable urban planning.
As Teo puts it:
“By showing where people are (and are not), they show us where political and economic power is concentrated, and perhaps where and who our governments represent.”
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