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The 50 Highest Cities in the World

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The 50 Highest Cities in the World

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Where Are The World’s Highest Cities?

When comparing the world’s cities to one another, we often use defining characteristics—largest, greenest, most visited, highest-earning, the list goes on.

Yet elevation is often overlooked, despite the fact that thousands of cities across the globe are nestled in highlands, plateaus, and mountain ranges.

Today’s graphic looks at the top 50 highest cities worldwide, and compares their altitudes to well-known references (the differences are dizzying).

Cities in the Sky

When ranking the world’s highest cities, we specifically looked at major urban centers with a population of one million or more inhabitants, with an elevation “floor” of 1,000m.

Though you might expect less important cities to make the rankings, 22 out of the 50 highest cities are actually national capitals.

The elevation data comes from the European Commission’s database of urban centers, using Thomas Brinkhoff’s City Population dataset for updated demographics.

RankUrban CenterCountryRegionAverage Elevation (m)
#1La PazBoliviaSouth America3,869
#2QuitoEcuadorSouth America2,784
#3TolucaMexicoCentral America2,648
#4CochabambaBoliviaSouth America2,621
#5BogotaColombiaSouth America2,601
#6Addis AbabaEthiopiaEastern Africa2,361
#7Mexico CityMexicoCentral America2,316
#8XiningChinaEastern Asia2,299
#9Sana'aYemenWestern Asia2,283
#10PueblaMexicoCentral America2,176
#11KunmingChinaEastern Asia1,924
#12San Luis PotosíMexicoCentral America1,873
#13LeónMexicoCentral America1,845
#14KabulAfghanistanSouth-Central Asia1,845
#15NairobiKenyaEastern Africa1,702
#16DenverUnited StatesNorthern America1,673
#17MedellínColombiaSouth America1,651
#18JohannesburgSouth AfricaSouthern Africa1,624
#19SrinagarIndiaSouth-Central Asia1,598
#20LanzhouChinaEastern Asia1,594
#21IsfahanIranSouth-Central Asia1,587
#22GuadalajaraMexicoCentral America1,583
#23ShirazIranSouth-Central Asia1,571
#24HarareZimbabweEastern Africa1,479
#25KigaliRwandaEastern Africa1,473
#26Guatemala CityGuatemalaCentral America1,463
#27TabrizIranSouth-Central Asia1,449
#28PretoriaSouth AfricaSouthern Africa1,365
#29KermanshahIranSouth-Central Asia1,359
#30KathmanduNepalSouth-Central Asia1,353
#31UlaanbaatarMongoliaEastern Asia1,326
#32AntananarivoMadagascarEastern Africa1,271
#33LusakaZambiaEastern Africa1,257
#34LubumbashiDemocratic Republic of the CongoMiddle Africa1,252
#35TehranIranSouth-Central Asia1,239
#36KampalaUgandaEastern Africa1,187
#37GuiyangChinaEastern Asia1,185
#38BrasiliaBrazilSouth America1,184
#39Ciudad JuárezMexicoCentral America1,164
#40BeniDemocratic Republic of the CongoMiddle Africa1,149
#41TorreonMexicoCentral America1,132
#42San JoséCosta RicaCentral America1,129
#43YinchuanChinaEastern Asia1,113
#44CalgaryCanadaNorthern America1,095
#45HohhotChinaEastern Asia1,069
#46BaotouChinaEastern Asia1,061
#47DatongChinaEastern Asia1,059
#48YerevanArmeniaWestern Asia1,058
#49CaracasVenezuelaSouth America1,018
#50MashhadIranSouth-Central Asia1,011

At the top of the pantheon is Bolivia’s El Alto-La Paz metropolitan area, which houses more than two million people at an average elevation of 3,869m above sea level. That’s a city of two million people situated more than 100 meters higher than Mount Fuji in Japan.

The next four are more than 1,000m lower than El Alto-La Paz, with Ecuador’s capital Quito coming in at second place at 2,784m and Colombia’s capital Bogotá rounding out the top five at 2,601m. For reference, that’s more than 100 meters higher than the world-famous Inca citadel Machu Picchu in Peru, which sits at a height of 2,430m.

It’s notable just how mountainous Latin America is. Of the 10 highest cities, three are in Mexico’s many mountainous regions and four of the top five are adjacent to the Andes Mountains.

Asia and the Americas Tower Above

Though it might be expected that countries would have their population centers close to sea level, many instead have followed in the footsteps of past civilizations by building in higher regions.

In addition to many capitals in South America, that list of major cities includes Mexico City, easily the largest on the list as the world’s 8th largest metropolis, Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city in Ethiopia, Tehran, the capital of Iran and most populous city in Western Asia, and Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa.

The countries with the most high cities were China and Mexico, with eight each. China specifically had the most high metropolises in Asia, and many of the world’s highest settlements, though most of its major cities lie outside the Tibetan and Mongolian Plateaus.

Regional Breakdown of Top 50 Highest Cities
Central America10
Eastern Asia9
South-Central Asia9
South America7
Eastern Africa7
Middle Africa2
Southern Africa2
Western Asia2
Northern America2
Europe0
Oceania0

As the table above highlights, while wide mountainous regions are concentrated in much of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the Western world is largely located close to the water.

The West Sits Below

The U.S. and Canada each only had one city each crack the top 50 list: the Rocky Mountain-adjacent cities of Denver and Calgary.

Meanwhile, despite the European Alps stretching across eight countries and both Australia and New Zealand having many mountains tall enough to crack the list, both Europe and Oceania had no major city situated more than 1,000m above sea level.

But though most of humanity remains concentrated near sea level, it is impressive to remember that hundreds of millions of people live in cities higher than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest tower.

In fact, studies have shown that living at higher altitudes has associated health benefits, including better cardiovascular health and lower incidence of stroke and cancer.

Regardless if future trends push more people thousands of meters into the sky, humanity has proven that it can prosper.

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Which risks are top of mind in 2021? We visualize the World Economic Forum’s risk assessment for top global risks by impact and livelihood.

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.

Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.

Which risks are top of mind in 2021?

The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact

According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:

  • 🔵 Economic
  • 🟢 Environmental
  • 🟠 Geopolitical
  • 🔴 Societal
  • 🟣 Technological

It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.

That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.

Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.

RankTop Risks by LikelihoodTop Risks by Impact
#1🟢Extreme weather🔴Infectious diseases
#2🟢Climate action failure🟢Climate action failure
#3🟢Human environmental damage🟠Weapons of mass destruction
#4🔴Infectious diseases🟢Biodiversity loss
#5🟢Biodiversity loss🟢Natural resource crises
#6🟣Digital power concentration🟢Human environmental damage
#7🟣Digital inequality🔴Livelihood crises
#8🟠Interstate relations fracture🟢Extreme weather
#9🟣Cybersecurity failure🔵Debt crises
#10🔴Livelihood crises🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown

As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.

New Risks in 2021

While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.

Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:

Societal Risks

COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.

At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.

Economic Risks

As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.

With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.

Technological Risks

Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.

Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.

Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon

Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.

In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.

RankRisk%Time Horizon
#1🟠Weapons of mass destruction62.7Long-term (5-10 years)
#2🔴Infectious diseases58Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#3🔴Livelihood crises55.1Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#4🔵Asset bubble burst53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#5🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#6🔵Price instability52.9Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#7🟢Extreme weather events52.7Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#8🔵Commodity shocks52.7Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#9🔵Debt crises52.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#10🟠State collapse51.8Long-term (5-10 years)

Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.

It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.

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Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are 510 million km² of area on the Earth, but less than 30% of this is land. Here’s the share countries make up of the Earth’s surface.

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countries by share of earth's surface

Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are over 510 million square kilometers of area on the surface of Earth, but less than 30% of this is covered by land. The rest is water, in the form of vast oceans.

Today’s visualization uses data primarily from the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) to rank the world’s countries by their share of Earth’s surface.

Breakdown of Countries Share of Earth’s Surface

The largest countries by surface area are Russia (3.35%), Canada (1.96%), and China (1.88%).

Together they occupy roughly 7.2% of Earth’s surface. Russia is so big that even if we divided the country between its Asian and European sections, those new regions would still be the largest in their respective continents.

Country / DependencyTotal in km² (mi²)Percentage of Earth's Surface
Russia17,098,246 (6,601,670)3.352%
Antarctica14,000,000 (5,400,000)2.745%
Canada9,984,670 (3,855,100)1.958%
China9,596,961 (3,705,407)1.881%
United States9,525,067 (3,677,649)1.867%
Brazil8,515,767 (3,287,956)1.670%
Australia7,692,024 (2,969,907)1.508%
India3,287,263 (1,269,219)0.644%
Argentina2,780,400 (1,073,500)0.545%
Kazakhstan2,724,900 (1,052,100)0.534%
Algeria2,381,741 (919,595)0.467%
D.R. Congo2,344,858 (905,355)0.460%
Greenland (Denmark)2,166,086 (836,330)0.425%
Saudi Arabia2,149,690 (830,000)0.421%
Mexico1,964,375 (758,449)0.385%
Indonesia1,910,931 (737,815)0.375%
Sudan1,861,484 (718,723)0.365%
Libya1,759,540 (679,360)0.345%
Iran1,648,195 (636,372)0.323%
Mongolia1,564,110 (603,910)0.307%
Peru1,285,216 (496,225)0.252%
Chad1,284,000 (496,000)0.252%
Niger1,267,000 (489,000)0.248%
Angola1,246,700 (481,400)0.244%
Mali1,240,192 (478,841)0.243%
South Africa1,221,037 (471,445)0.239%
Colombia1,141,748 (440,831)0.224%
Ethiopia1,104,300 (426,400)0.216%
Bolivia1,098,581 (424,164)0.215%
Mauritania1,030,700 (398,000)0.202%
Egypt1,002,450 (387,050)0.197%
Tanzania945,087 (364,900)0.185%
Nigeria923,768 (356,669)0.181%
Venezuela916,445 (353,841)0.180%
Pakistan907,843 (350,520)0.178%
Namibia825,615 (318,772)0.162%
Mozambique801,590 (309,500)0.157%
Turkey783,562 (302,535)0.154%
Chile756,102 (291,933)0.148%
Zambia752,612 (290,585)0.148%
Myanmar676,578 (261,228)0.133%
Afghanistan652,230 (251,830)0.128%
South Sudan644,329 (248,777)0.126%
Somalia637,657 (246,201)0.125%
Central African Republic622,984 (240,535)0.122%
Ukraine603,500 (233,000)0.118%
Madagascar587,041 (226,658)0.115%
Botswana581,730 (224,610)0.114%
Kenya580,367 (224,081)0.114%
France543,940 (210,020)0.107%
Yemen527,968 (203,850)0.104%
Thailand513,120 (198,120)0.101%
Spain505,992 (195,365)0.099%
Turkmenistan488,100 (188,500)0.096%
Cameroon475,442 (183,569)0.093%
Papua New Guinea462,840 (178,700)0.091%
Sweden450,295 (173,860)0.088%
Uzbekistan447,400 (172,700)0.088%
Morocco446,550 (172,410)0.088%
Iraq438,317 (169,235)0.086%
Paraguay406,752 (157,048)0.080%
Zimbabwe390,757 (150,872)0.077%
Norway385,207 (148,729)0.076%
Japan377,976 (145,937)0.074%
Germany357,114 (137,882)0.070%
Republic of the Congo342,000 (132,000)0.067%
Finland338,424 (130,666)0.066%
Vietnam331,212 (127,882)0.065%
Malaysia330,803 (127,724)0.065%
Ivory Coast322,463 (124,504)0.063%
Poland312,696 (120,733)0.061%
Oman309,500 (119,500)0.061%
Italy301,339 (116,348)0.059%
Philippines300,000 (120,000)0.059%
Ecuador276,841 (106,889)0.054%
Burkina Faso274,222 (105,878)0.054%
New Zealand270,467 (104,428)0.053%
Gabon267,668 (103,347)0.052%
Guinea245,857 (94,926)0.048%
United Kingdom242,495 (93,628)0.048%
Uganda241,550 (93,260)0.047%
Ghana238,533 (92,098)0.047%
Romania238,397 (92,046)0.047%
Laos236,800 (91,400)0.046%
Guyana214,969 (83,000)0.042%
Belarus207,600 (80,200)0.041%
Kyrgyzstan199,951 (77,202)0.039%
Senegal196,722 (75,955)0.039%
Syria185,180 (71,500)0.036%
Cambodia181,035 (69,898)0.035%
Uruguay176,215 (68,037)0.035%
Somaliland176,120 (68,000)0.035%
Suriname163,820 (63,250)0.032%
Tunisia163,610 (63,170)0.032%
Bangladesh148,460 (57,320)0.029%
Nepal147,181 (56,827)0.029%
Tajikistan143,100 (55,300)0.028%
Greece131,957 (50,949)0.026%
Nicaragua130,373 (50,337)0.026%
North Korea120,540 (46,540)0.024%
Malawi118,484 (45,747)0.023%
Eritrea117,600 (45,400)0.023%
Benin114,763 (44,310)0.022%
Honduras112,492 (43,433)0.022%
Liberia111,369 (43,000)0.022%
Bulgaria111,002 (42,858)0.022%
Cuba109,884 (42,426)0.022%
Guatemala108,889 (42,042)0.021%
Iceland103,000 (40,000)0.020%
South Korea100,210 (38,690)0.020%
Hungary93,028 (35,918)0.018%
Portugal92,226 (35,609)0.018%
Jordan89,342 (34,495)0.018%
Serbia88,361 (34,116)0.017%
Azerbaijan86,600 (33,400)0.017%
Austria83,871 (32,383)0.016%
United Arab Emirates83,600 (32,300)0.016%
Czech Republic78,865 (30,450)0.015%
Panama75,417 (29,119)0.015%
Sierra Leone71,740 (27,700)0.014%
Ireland70,273 (27,133)0.014%
Georgia69,700 (26,900)0.014%
Sri Lanka65,610 (25,330)0.013%
Lithuania65,300 (25,200)0.013%
Latvia64,559 (24,926)0.013%
Togo56,785 (21,925)0.011%
Croatia56,594 (21,851)0.011%
Bosnia and Herzegovina51,209 (19,772)0.010%
Costa Rica51,100 (19,700)0.010%
Slovakia49,037 (18,933)0.010%
Dominican Republic48,671 (18,792)0.010%
Estonia45,227 (17,462)0.009%
Denmark43,094 (16,639)0.008%
Netherlands41,850 (16,160)0.008%
Switzerland41,284 (15,940)0.008%
Bhutan38,394 (14,824)0.008%
Taiwan36,193 (13,974)0.007%
Guinea-Bissau36,125 (13,948)0.007%
Moldova33,846 (13,068)0.007%
Belgium30,528 (11,787)0.006%
Lesotho30,355 (11,720)0.006%
Armenia29,743 (11,484)0.006%
Solomon Islands28,896 (11,157)0.006%
Albania28,748 (11,100)0.006%
Equatorial Guinea28,051 (10,831)0.005%
Burundi27,834 (10,747)0.005%
Haiti27,750 (10,710)0.005%
Rwanda26,338 (10,169)0.005%
North Macedonia25,713 (9,928)0.005%
Djibouti23,200 (9,000)0.005%
Belize22,966 (8,867)0.005%
El Salvador21,041 (8,124)0.004%
Israel20,770 (8,020)0.004%
Slovenia20,273 (7,827)0.004%
Fiji18,272 (7,055)0.004%
Kuwait17,818 (6,880)0.003%
Eswatini17,364 (6,704)0.003%
East Timor14,919 (5,760)0.003%
The Bahamas13,943 (5,383)0.003%
Montenegro13,812 (5,333)0.003%
Vanuatu12,189 (4,706)0.002%
Qatar11,586 (4,473)0.002%
The Gambia11,295 (4,361)0.002%
Jamaica10,991 (4,244)0.002%
Kosovo10,887 (4,203)0.002%
Lebanon10,452 (4,036)0.002%
Cyprus9,251 (3,572)0.002%
State of Palestine6,020 (2,320)0.001%
Brunei5,765 (2,226)0.001%
Trinidad and Tobago5,130 (1,980)0.001%
Cape Verde4,033 (1,557)0.001%
Samoa2,842 (1,097)0.001%
Luxembourg2,586 (998)0.001%
Mauritius2,040 (790)0.000%
Comoros1,862 (719)0.000%
São Tomé and Príncipe964 (372)0.000%
Kiribati811 (313)0.000%
Bahrain778 (300)0.000%
Dominica751 (290)0.000%
Tonga747 (288)0.000%
Singapore728 (281)0.000%
Federated States of Micronesia702 (271)0.000%
Saint Lucia616 (238)0.000%
Andorra468 (181)0.000%
Palau459 (177)0.000%
Seychelles452 (175)0.000%
Antigua and Barbuda442 (171)0.000%
Barbados430 (170)0.000%
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines389 (150)0.000%
Grenada344 (133)0.000%
Malta316 (122)0.000%
Maldives300 (120)0.000%
Saint Kitts and Nevis261 (101)0.000%
Marshall Islands181 (70)0.000%
Liechtenstein160 (62)0.000%
San Marino61 (24)0.000%
Tuvalu26 (10)0.000%
Nauru21 (8.1)0.000%
Monaco2.02 (0.78)0.000%
Vatican City0.49 (0.19)0.000%

Antarctica, although not a country, covers the second largest amount of land overall at 2.75%. Meanwhile, the other nations that surpass the 1% mark for surface area include the United States (1.87%), Brazil (1.67%), and Australia (1.51%).

The remaining 195 countries and regions below 1%, combined, account for the other half of Earth’s land surface. Among the world’s smallest countries are the island nations of the Caribbean and the South Pacific Ocean. However, the tiniest of the tiny are Vatican City and Monaco, which combine for a total area of just 2.51 km².

The remaining 70% of Earth’s surface is water: 27% territorial waters and 43% international waters or areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

In the past, nations adhered to the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine, a 17th century principle that limited jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow area along a nation’s coastline. The rest of the seas did not belong to any nation and were free for countries to travel and exploit.

This situation lasted into the 20th century, but by mid-century there was an effort to extend national claims as competition for offshore resources became increasingly fierce and ocean pollution became an issue.

In 1982, the United Nations adopted the Law of the Sea Convention which extended international law over the extra-territorial waters. The convention established freedom-of-navigation rights and set territorial sea boundaries 12 miles (19 km) offshore with exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles (322 km) offshore, extending a country’s influence over maritime resources.

Does Size Matter?

The size of countries is the outcome of politics, economics, history, and geography. Put simply, borders can change over time.

In 1946, there were 76 independent countries in the world, and today there are 195. There are forces that push together or pull apart landscapes over time. While physical geography plays a role in the identity of nations, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of UAE, a tiny Gulf nation, put it best:

“A country is not measured by the size of its area on the map. A country is truly measured by its heritage and culture.”

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