Small Wonders

by Chadd McGlone
Chapel Hill, NC, United States

Traveling by sea to the island country of Maldives, you’ll find endless water stretching in all directions. As your boat draws closer, though, you’ll notice dark squares poking above the horizon. They’ll rise in height as you approach. You’ll wonder to yourself how palm trees could have grown rectangular foliage? Then the realization will hit you—

Those aren’t trees. They’re buildings!

Jam-Packed and in a Pickle

Resembling a sight from a science fiction movie, the capital city of Malé occupies the fifth most densely populated island in the world. Twenty- and thirty-story buildings housing nearly 150,000 people are packed onto a circular island of 2.2 square miles (5.8 square kilometers).

Not only is Malé dense, it is also low in elevation. Its highest natural point is the lowest in the world—7 feet 10 inches (2.4 meters). As you can imagine, rising an average of only 4 feet 11 inches (1.5 metres) above sea level in the middle of the Indian Ocean puts it at great risk from climate change.

A Royal Past

The entire archipelago of Maldives started off with a greater number of islands than of inhabitants. An astonishing 1192 coral islands fan out across approximately 35,000 square miles (90,000 square kilometres). The earliest estimate of its population, 2147, comes from the late nineteenth century. At that time, Malé was called the King’s Island and was the home of the ruling royal dynasty and its palace.

A typical section of Malé waterfront

During the past century, Malé has undergone tremendous change. Not only has the population grown, but the royal palace has been replaced by concrete buildings, busy harbors and scenic boardwalks.

Tourist Tips

Today many tourists visit Malé, often stopping on the way to one of the many beautiful nearby resorts. Visitors rave about the warm, sunny weather and the ease with which they can get from place to place. With an overall diameter of fewer than two miles, people can easily walk anywhere on Malé.

You could see the entire city on foot in about an hour. Then when you’re ready to cool off in the ocean, head to the accurately named Artificial Beach. Leave your bikini at home, however, as this Muslim country encourages modesty even while swimming. You’ll save a bundle on sunscreen!


Malé’s Artifical Beach

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Math Questions

  1. Pretend that you know nothing at all about Maldives. Then someone hands you this banknote and asks what you might guess to be true about the country. What answers would you give? In other words, what does this money tell you about Maldives?
  2. Look up the exchange rate for Maldivian Rufiyaa and US Dollars. How much is this banknote worth? Calculate how many Rufiyaa you’d get for $10, $20 and $50.

Write your own math question and submit it here

Lesson Downloads

High school math activity worksheets on —

Extension Question

One of the strategies that the Maldivian government has employed to combat rising sea levels is to pump sand onto islands to raise their elevations. These massive engineering projects can provide refuge to residents of the lowest islands, but they are not environmentally friendly. Is the cost to the ecosystem worth the human benefit?

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