Jul 022012

One would think that with satellite imagery there would be no question concerning the land area of countries. However, when talking about area there are some definitional issues. Are we talking about “land area” or “total area” which includes land area and inland water bodies such as lakes, reservoirs and rivers? This can be important when talking about the relative size of countries.

Without question Russia is the largest with nearly twice the area of the second place country. What are the second, third and fourth place countries? If we are talking about “land area”, excluding inland waters, then China is second (9.570 million square kilometers), the USA is third (9.162m sq km) and Canada is fourth (9.094m sq km). However, when inland waters are included to get “total area” then Canada is second (9.985m sq km), China is third (9.597m sq km) and the USA is fourth (9.526m sq km). Generally “total area” is the measure used to compare the geographic areas of countries (see table).

Total area of the world’s largest countries (millions of square kilometers)

RankCountryArea (millions of sq. km)RankCountryArea (millions of sq. km)
2Canada9.98512Saudi Arabia2.150
5Brazil8.51515Sudan (post 2011)1.861

Generally we might expect a country’s geographic area rank to stay the same from year to year and even decade to decade. However, this is not the case. Prior to 1991 Mexico was considered the world’s 13th largest country. However with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 2011, Kazakhstan became an independent country ranked 9th in total area. This pushed Mexico down to 14th.

When South Sudan split away from Sudan in mid 2011, the area of “new” Sudan was reduced by over 25%. This dropped Sudan from 10th to 15th on the list of the world’s largest countries. It also moved Mexico from 14th back up to 13th place on the list. Such political changes can have enormous impact on the size of countries. For example, prior to 1951 when Tibet was considered an independent country, the size of China was an eighth smaller than it is now. Mexico before 1846 was almost twice its current size and perhaps the fifth largest independent country behind only Russia, China, the USA and Brazil.

Another issue concerns whether Greenland (2.166m sq km)  is counted as a country. While Greenland is officially a dependency of Denmark it has been moving toward independence. In 1985 it left the European Economic Community (EEC) while Denmark remained in the EEC. Greenland has its own Parliament and Prime Minister; in June 2009 Greenland assumed self-determination with Greenlandic as its sole official language. If/when Greenland becomes officially an independent “country” it will be the world’s 12th largest, bumping Mexico back into 14th place. Until this happens, Mexico remains the world’s 13th largest country.

The changes in rank discussed above came about for political reasons. They did not involve any physical changes. With global warming and rising sea levels some countries will actually become geographically smaller. However these changes will not affect the area ranking of the 20 largest countries for at least the next hundred years.

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