The World’s Three Great Archipelagic Realms, and the Difficulties in Determining What Counts as an Island

When lecturing on early modern history to Stanford students the other day, I remarked that there is nothing on the earth like insular Southeast Asia, with its many thousands of islands ranging in size from huge to tiny. In terms of archipelagic scope, only the Caribbean can compare, I noted, although its islands are much smaller and many fewer in number. And Southeast Asia’s island realm becomes much larger still if one were to include the nearby island clusters of Melanesia (the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands).

That evening, however, I realized that there is another great archipelagic realm, that of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. I tend to neglect this region largely because its population is so small. Greenland, almost all of which is ice covered, has only some 56,000 inhabitants, while the many islands of the Canadian Arctic counts only around 23,000. But as can be seen in the table of large islands posted below, insular Southeast Asia and the Arctic Archipelago are of comparable scope, whereas the Caribbean is distinctly smaller.

If one is concerned, however, only with the sheer number of islands, another archipelago arguably occupies the top ranking. These are the islands of southwestern Finland, sometimes called the Turku Archipelago, whose scenic specks of land are scattered across a relatively small span of water called the Archipelago Sea. As noted in the Wikipedia article on this area:

The Archipelago Sea is a part of the Baltic Sea between the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland, and the Sea of Åland, within Finnish territorial waters. By some definitions it contains the largest archipelago in the world by the number of islands, although many of the islands are very small and tightly clustered. … The total surface area is 8,300 square kilometres (3,205 square miles), of which 2,000 square kilometres (772 square miles) is land. … The number of the larger islands of over 1 square kilometre (0.4 sq mi) within the Archipelago Sea is 257, whilst the number of smaller isles of over 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) is about 17,700. If the number of smallest uninhabitable rocks and skerries is accounted, 50,000 is probably a good estimate. In comparison, the number of islands in the Canadian Arctic archipelago is 36,563. Indonesia has 17,508 islands, according to the Indonesian Naval Hydro-Oceanographic Office. The Philippines has 7,107 islands.

 

Finland’s archipelago does not look particularly impressive on most maps, owing to the tiny size of most of its islands. But at the level of resolution increases, more and more islands appear almost everywhere one looks. I have illustrated this point with several Google Maps excerpts, posted below.

As the Wikipedia article on the Archipelago Sea indicates, it is difficult to determine the total number of islands in any body of water, as it depends on the size limit used to differentiate an island from a mere rock or other exiguous area of (generally) dry land. This can be a politically charged matter, as the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea grants every country a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone around all its islands, but not around all its rocks.

Such definitional complexities can also give rise to some odd headlines. Just this week, several news agencies announced that Japan had “discovered” some 7,000 new islands in its own waters. But this was much less a matter of discovery than a definitional change coupled with precision mapping. As explained by Scripps News:

The country recounted the number of islands in its territory for the first time in nearly four decades, and found it has over 7,000 more than initially believed. Using digital mapping, the Geopolitical Information Authority of Japan determined it had a total of 14,125 islands. That’s 7,273 more than Japan’s Coat Guard counted in 1987. The definition of “island” is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, but there isn’t an international agreement on how nations count their islands. Overall, Japan detected more than 120,000 different pieces of land, but only considered the ones that had a circumference over one-tenth of a kilometer — about 328 feet.

By this measure, Japan has more islands than the Philippines. But if the Philippines where to reexamine its own island endowment, I imagine that it could come up with a higher number.

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