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Maldives - Geography

Roughly 370 miles south-west of India, the collection of 1,192 islands of the Republic of Maldives (Dhivehi Raajjeyge Jumhooriyyaa) are home to some 325,000 people. The top of the chain of islands lies to the south west of India. The atolls stretch southwards from there and past the western side of Sri Lanka, ending just over the other side of the equator in the Southern Hemisphere. The long distances within the Maldives promote a relative isolation of islands, atolls and atoll groups.

This chain that stretches over an area of 90,000 sq kms of the Indian Ocean, and surrounded by an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering 859,000sq kms. The nations capital Male, with around 2.5 sq kms of total land area has over a quarter of the entire population of 270,000 (mid-year 2002), while approximately 71 percent of the rest of the 200 inhabited islands had less than 1000 inhabitants.

There are 1,190 islands grouped in clusters of 26 atolls. Most atolls consist of a large, ringshaped coral reef supporting numerous islands. The islands are composed of live coral reefs and sand bars. The islands average 1 to 2 km2 in area, and between 1 and 1.5 m above mean sea level in height. The highest point in the Maldives is an unnamed location on the Wilingili Island in the Addu Atoll at 2.4 m. The longest island is Hithadhoo at 8 km in the Addu Atoll. Each atoll has approximately five to ten inhabited islands and approximately 20 to 60 uninhabited islands.

The islands of the Maldives are Holocene features that began forming 3,000 to 5,500 years ago. They are composed primarily of carbonate sediment derived from coral reefs and deposited by waves and currents. The submerged mountain chain on which the coral reefs are built has been in existence for millions of years, whereas the islands are some of the youngest land surfaces on Earth. Because they are largely unconsolidated, the islands should be considered ephemeral features over geologic time scales, and their low elevation makes them particularly vulnerable to storms and changes in sea level.

Atolls are some of the most complex and vibrant structures on the planet. Built diligently over thousands of years by tiny, sea anenome-like coral polyps, these ring shaped coral structures can be tens of kilometers in diameter with individual reefs large enough to support lush tropical islands and even small cities. As is the case with any living coral structure, countless species of fish and invertebrates can be found inhabiting the waters in and around an atoll. But unlike the fringing reefs along Floridas coast or even the barrier reefs off the shore of Australia, atolls do not border anything. Instead, they sit on a coral base that often rises thousands of meters from the oceans floor in some of the most remote areas of the tropical oceans.

The standard theory of atoll formation is that a volcanic island forms in deep tropical waters, giving coral polyps a foundation to grow on (above, top). In time, the volcano becomes dormant and the island begins to subside. Coral reefs, originally fringing the edges of the island, become a barrier reef outlining the contour of the original coastline. After the original island slips entirely beneath the waves, all that is left is a coral atoll.

The highest island is situated at three meters above sea level. Maldives has no hills or rivers. Although some larger atolls are approximately fifty kilometers long from north to south, and thirty kilometers wide from east to west, no individual island is longer than eight kilometers. Each atoll has approximately five to ten inhabited islands; the uninhabited islands of each atoll number approximately twenty to sixty. Several atolls, however, consist of one large, isolated island surrounded by a steep coral beach. The most notable example of this type of atoll is the large island of Fua Mulaku situated in the middle of the Equatorial Channel.

The tropical vegetation of Maldives comprises groves of breadfruit trees and coconut palms towering above dense scrub, shrubs, and flowers. The soil is sandy and highly alkaline, and a deficiency in nitrogen, potash, and iron severely limits agricultural potential. Ten percent of the land, or about 2,600 hectares, is cultivated with taro, bananas, coconuts, and other fruit. Only the lush island of Fua Mulaku produces fruits such as oranges and pineapples, partly because the terrain of Fua Mulaku is higher than most other islands, leaving the groundwater less subject to seawater penetration.

Freshwater floats in a layer, or "lens," above the seawater that permeates the limestone and coral sands of the islands. These lenses are shrinking rapidly on Male and on many islands where there are resorts catering to foreign tourists. Mango trees have been reported dying on Male because of salt penetration. Most residents of the atolls depend on groundwater or rainwater for drinking purposes. Concerns over global warming and a possible long-term rise in sea level as a result of the melting of polar ice are important issues to the fragile balance between the people and the environment of Maldives in the 1990s.





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