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 1,192 coral islands fan out across approximately 35,000 square miles (90,000 square kilometres). The earliest estimate of its population, 2,147, comes from the late 19th century. At that time, Malé was called the King’s Island and was the home of the ruling royal dynasty and its palace.
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 Not only has the population grown, but the royal palace has been replaced by concrete buildings, busy harbors and scenic boardwalks.
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!
Have a change to suggest for this story? We’d love for you to submit it!
Learning Activities for High School:
- In total elevation, how high above sea level can the steam from the tallest geyser explode into the sky?
- It takes an average person two hours to hike the trails around the park. Approximately how many miles of trails are there? How many meters? Feet?
Social Justice 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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