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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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Misc

A Visual Guide to Human Emotion

For years, humans have attempted to categorize and codify human emotion. Here are those attempts, visualized.

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visual guide to human emotions wheel

A Visual Guide to Human Emotion

Despite vast differences in culture around the world, humanity’s DNA is 99.9% similar.

There are few attributes more central and universal to the human experience than our emotions. Of course, the broad spectrum of emotions we’re capable of experiencing can be difficult to articulate. That’s where this brilliant visualization by the Junto Institute comes in.

This circular visualization is the latest in an ongoing attempt to neatly categorize the full range of emotions in a logical way.

A Taxonomy of Human Emotion

Our understanding has come a long way since William James proposed four basic emotions – fear, grief, love, and rage—though these core emotions still form much of the foundation for current frameworks.

The wheel visualization above identifies six root emotions:

  1. Fear
  2. Anger
  3. Sadness
  4. Surprise
  5. Joy
  6. Love

From these six emotions, more nuanced descriptions emerge, such as jealousy as a subset of anger, and awe-struck as a subset of surprise. In total, there are 102 second- and third-order emotions listed on this emotion wheel.

Reinventing the Feeling Wheel

The concept of mapping the range of human emotions on a wheel picked up traction in the 1980s, and has evolved ever since.

One of these original concepts was developed by American psychologist Robert Plutchik, who mapped eight primary emotions—anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. These “high survival value” emotions were believed to be the most useful in keeping our ancient ancestors alive.

plutchik emotion wheel

Another seminal graphic concept was developed by author Dr. Gloria Willcox. This version of the emotions wheel has spawned dozens of similar designs, as people continue to try to improve on the concept.

willcox feelings wheel

Further Exploration

The more we research human emotion, the more nuanced our understanding becomes in terms of how we react to the world around us.

Researchers at UC Berkeley used 2,185 short video clips to elicit emotions from study participants. Study participants rated the videos using 27 dimensions of self-reported emotional experience, and the results were mapped in an incredible interactive visualization. It is interesting to note that some video clips garnered a wide array of responses, while other clips elicit a near unanimous emotional response.

Here are some example videos and the distribution of responses:

reported emotional reaction to video clips

The data visualization clusters these types of videos together, giving us a unique perspective on how people respond to certain types of stimuli.

Much like emotion itself, our desire to understand and classify the world around us is powerful and uniquely human.

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Markets

Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Ocean shipping is the primary mode of international trade. This map identifies maritime choke points that pose a risk to this complex logistic network.

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maritime choke points

Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Maritime transport is an essential part of international trade—approximately 80% of global merchandise is shipped via sea.

Because of its importance, commercial shipping relies on strategic trade routes to move goods efficiently. These waterways are used by thousands of vessels a year—but it’s not always smooth sailing. In fact, there are certain points along these routes that pose a risk to the whole system.

Here’s a look at the world’s most vulnerable maritime bottlenecks—also known as choke points—as identified by GIS.

What’s a Choke Point?

Choke points are strategic, narrow passages that connect two larger areas to one another. When it comes to maritime trade, these are typically straits or canals that see high volumes of traffic because of their optimal location.

Despite their convenience, these vital points pose several risks:

  • Structural risks: As demonstrated in the recent Suez Canal blockage, ships can crash along the shore of a canal if the passage is too narrow, causing traffic jams that can last for days.
  • Geopolitical risks: Because of their high traffic, choke points are particularly vulnerable to blockades or deliberate disruptions during times of political unrest.

The type and degree of risk varies, depending on location. Here’s a look at some of the biggest threats, at eight of the world’s major choke points.

maritime choke point risks

Because of their high risk, alternatives for some of these key routes have been proposed in the past—for instance, in 2013 Nicaraguan Congress approved a $40 billion dollar project proposal to build a canal that was meant to rival the Panama Canal.

As of today, it has yet to materialize.

A Closer Look: Key Maritime Choke Points

Despite their vulnerabilities, these choke points remain critical waterways that facilitate international trade. Below, we dive into a few of the key areas to provide some context on just how important they are to global trade.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a lock-type canal that provides a shortcut for ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Ships sailing between the east and west coasts of the U.S. save over 8,000 nautical miles by using the canal—which roughly shortens their trip by 21 days.

In 2019, 252 million long tons of goods were transported through the Panama Canal, which generated over $2.6 billion in tolls.

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is an Egyptian waterway that connects Europe to Asia. Without this route, ships would need to sail around Africa, which would add approximately seven days to their trips. In 2019, nearly 19,000 vessels, and 1 billion tons of cargo, traveled through the Suez Canal.

In an effort to mitigate risk, the Egyptian government embarked on a major expansion project for the canal back in 2015. But, given the recent blockage caused by a Taiwanese container ship, it’s clear that the waterway is still vulnerable to obstruction.

The Strait of Malacca

At its smallest point, the Strait of Malacca is approximately 1.5 nautical miles, making it one of the world’s narrowest choke points. Despite its size, it’s one of Asia’s most critical waterways, since it provides a critical connection between China, India, and Southeast Asia. This choke point creates a risky situation for the 130,000 or so ships that visit the Port of Singapore each year.

The area is also known to have problems with piracy—in 2019, there were 30 piracy incidents, according to private information group ReCAAP ISC.

The Strait of Hormuz

Controlled by Iran, the Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, ultimately draining into the Arabian Sea. It’s a primary vein for the world’s oil supply, transporting approximately 21 million barrels per day.

Historically, it’s also been a site of regional conflict. For instance, tankers and commercial ships were attacked in that area during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is another primary waterway for the world’s oil and natural gas. Nestled between Africa and the Middle East, the critical route connects the Mediterranean Sea (via the Suez Canal) to the Indian Ocean.

Like the Strait of Malacca, it’s well known as a high-risk area for pirate attacks. In May 2020, a UK chemical tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen–the ninth pirate attack in the area that year.

Due to the strategic nature of the region, there is a strong military presence in nearby Djibouti, including China’s first ever foreign military base.

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