The ten largest archipelagos in the world? Well, that depends on what your parameters are. We are going by the square mileage, but some measure by the number of islands, which would give you a slightly different list.
An archipelago is a group of islands that lie in close proximity to each other and away from any other chain of islands. The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago.
We usually only think about the six or seven larger islands at the southern end of the chain, but there are 137 islands that stretch out to the northwest of Kaua’i.
The world’s largest archipelago is the Malay Archipelago, which stretches from Sumatra in the west through Indonesia and Malaysia and part of the Philippines to New Guinea, Borneo, and beyond. It is almost 4000 miles from east to west and 2200 miles north-south. More than 17,000 islands make up this huge landmass, larger than Europe and part of Asia combined.
The Malay chain has also been called the East Indies in the past before the various political entities took form.
The massive chain is part of the Ring of Fire, the horseshoe-shaped band of volcanoes that surrounds the Pacific Ocean. This area is not only volcanically active but also seismically as it sits on tectonic plate boundaries. The list of catastrophic eruptions over the past few centuries is topped by the mind-boggling explosion of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra in 1883.
The eruption blew five cubic miles of the island 50 miles into space and was heard 3000 miles away. Tsunamis with 120-foot waves devastated the shores of the large islands and Thailand and Malaysia. 36,000 people were killed.
The Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 was triggered by an undersea earthquake registering 9.1 on the Richter Scale. The 100 foot waves produced ravaged the coastlines from Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar to Sri Lanka, India, and the east coast of Africa. Over 200,000 people died and nearly 2 million were displaced.
But this land of fire and unsettled earth is home to an amazingly diverse ecology. The islands lie directly on the Equator and are covered for the most part in vegetation to the tops of the mountains. And the most amazing animals and birds live in these jungles.
Orangutans swing through the trees in Borneo and Sumatra. The rare primates are extinct on the islands in between. Rhinoceros are an endangered species on the island of Java.
Exquisite Bird of Paradise species lives in Papua New Guinea. And dragons truly exist on Komodo Island in Indonesia. The Komodo lizard can reach 10 feet in length and 150 pounds.
The islands and their rich biodiversity are at risk though. Clear-cutting for agriculture and urban expansion is endangering this amazing land.
Canadian Arctic Archipelago
The Canadian Arctic Archipelago is over 1.4 million square miles in area and is composed of 36,563 islands, including 94 large islands. The population of this huge area is 14,000. The majority of these people are Inuit who lives in coastal villages throughout the islands.
The small minority consists of government employees and military personnel.
There is a growing tourist industry in the islands. The mountainous terrain, split by the precipitous sides of fjords, the brilliant whites and blues of the glaciers, and the wildlife make the archipelago a true adventure vacation. The Northern Lights in the winter are spectacular in a region with no light pollution.
The land is home to caribou, muskox, foxes, wolves, and Arctic hares. The waters of the bays and seas are inhabited by polar bears and different species of seals and whales including belugas and narwhals. What memories this experience would create!
Third in size is the Japanese Archipelago, about 146,000 square miles with 6,852 islands that stretch over 1900 miles along the east coast of mainland Asia. There are five large islands where the majority of the population live: Hokkaido, Honshu, Okinawa, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Mountains dominate the islands.
Forests cover two-thirds of the land. The people are concentrated in the valleys, plains, and along the coast.
Several tectonic plates lie deep in the earth beneath this part of the Ring of Fire. Earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis occur frequently, as well as occasional volcanic eruptions.
Mount Fujiyama, the iconic symmetrical mountain on Honshu, is an active volcano. The last eruption was in 1707 and it is considered a low-risk today.
Japan was introduced to the West in the sixteenth century when merchant ships began arriving to trade, bringing along Jesuit priests. The feudal lords bought the Western goods, Christianity began to gather converts, and Western ideas began to spread through the land.
In 1603, the shogun, the effective dictator, ordered all Westerners out of Japan and Christianity was banned. For two centuries Japan was closed. Then in 1868, the Shogunate was overthrown. A period of modernization occurred under the new constitutional monarchy, which was followed by growing imperialism and WWII.
Today Japan has one of the largest economies in Asia. Tourism is one of the industries that keeps the island nation going. The tourists all love to take photos of the beautiful, peaceful Mount Fuji.
The British Isles are a lot more than just two middle-sized islands. The Isles have more than 5000 islands, totaling almost 122,000 square miles, as well as two nations, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, both of which have contributed immensely to the fields of literature and science, as well as providing the stepping stones for democracy.
The southern portions of the two largest islands are not much above sea level. The northern parts, especially in Scotland, are mountainous, forming the Scottish Highlands. The highest point in the Isles is here, Ben Nevis, at 4400 feet.
The small islands north of Scotland are rugged as well, all shaped by several periods of mountain building during prehistoric eras.
Large amounts of limestone and chalk can be found throughout the islands, as evidenced by the White Cliffs of Dover and the Long Man of Wilmington. The climate is temperate, moderated by the Gulf Stream. Citrus trees, banana trees, and palms grow on the southern coast of Cornwall. Generally, though the winters and summers are both mild and wet.
New Zealand is the fifth-largest archipelago in the world. Its two large islands called the North Island and the South Island, and the other 700 plus islands that make up the archipelago come to 103,500 square miles. Its nearest neighbor is Australia, 1200 miles to the west across the Tasman Sea.
The islands lie in the Pacific Ring of Fire with active volcanism on the North Island. The Southern Alps on the South Island sits on a series of fault lines and earthquakes, such as the one that struck Christchurch in 2011, are common.
There is only one political entity in the archipelago, that of New Zealand, a parliamentary democracy with the Queen being the head of state. The country, though, is completely self-governing. They have a burgeoning economy with a large reservoir of natural resources in forestry, fishing, mining, and manufacturing.
Because of the spectacular scenery (seen by millions in the movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as well as the unique flora and fauna including the flightless bird, the kiwi, which is a symbol of New Zealand. Tourism has grown into a major service industry.
New Zealand started exploring Antarctica in the early part of the twentieth century and laid claim to the area called the Ross Dependency. The Southern Alps and the Ross Dependency were where New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, trained before their successful assault on Mount Everest in 1953.
Hillary always felt that he was a typical New Zealander; an ordinary man with a deep sense of determination and perseverance.
The Antilles Archipelago consists of both the Greater and Lesser Antilles. This island chain forms the boundary between the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean. The Antilles include all the islands except for the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
A collision between the relatively small Caribbean tectonic plate with the North American plate several million years ago created a mountain range. In addition, about 20 active volcanoes in the area started adding lava. The range-extended above the water, creating the Antilles Archipelago. There are still active volcanoes. The island of Montserrat has been largely destroyed and is uninhabitable. Guadaloupe’s volcano, La Soufriere, is active although it hasn’t erupted for years.
The people of the islands are as diverse as the exotic plants and birds that share their homes. Thirteen sovereign states and seventeen dependencies constitute the political entities. Multiple languages are spoken, particularly English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Antillean Creole.
The spectacular scenery, tropical climate, and crystal clear ocean make this group of islands one of the favorite tourist destinations in the world.
Novaya Zemlya consists of two large islands, Severny (which means north) and Yuzhny (which means south), running mostly due north. There are a number of smaller islands with a total area of 35,000 square miles and a population of 3000, mostly indigenous Nenetses with a military presence. The islands are a continuation of the Ural Mountains that resurface across the Karo Strait.
Severny is largely covered by glaciers while Yuzhny is mainly tundra. Over two thirds of the population live in the capital, Belushya Guba on the southern island. Dining out in the capital is limited to a cafeteria.
Severny was the site of a number of nuclear bomb tests, including the Tsar Bomba in 1961, the largest nuclear explosion ever recorded. The whole area is restricted and governed by the military and permits to enter the area are hard to get.
Svalbard is the name for the Norwegian Archipelago, consisting of nine main islands with an area of 23,500 square miles. There are more than 200,000 islands. Most of the land is owned by the Kingdom of Norway in the form of national parks, nature preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries.
The Aurora Borealis in the winter with dog sledding and the midnight sun with cave exploring, hiking, kayaking, and birding in the summer are being turned into tours as the area expands its tourist trade.
The largest island is Spitsbergen. Most of the 3000 people who live on the islands reside in Longyearbyen, the administrative center, which boasts the northernmost sushi restaurant in the world.
Sernaya Zemlya is also in the far north, scattered across the Arctic Ocean between Russia and the North Pole. Four major islands named October Revolution, Bolshevik, Komsomolets, and Pioneer, make up the majority of the 14,300 square miles, although there are 70 smaller islands.
The Vilkitsky Strait separates the archipelago from the Siberian Peninsula. Much of the year the strait is covered with ice and you can walk the 25 miles to October Revolution Island.
No one lives on these islands. The only inhabitants in this land of glaciers and tundra and ice are wolves and lemmings and birds. There is a science base there, occasionally inhabited by people. But this place doesn’t even have a cafeteria, let alone a sushi bar.