In this post, I write down a large (though by no means exhaustive) list of geographical facts that I found really unintuitive when I first learned about them, some of which still boggle my mind when I think about it now, even after knowing the fact for years and thinking through its unintuitiveness before.
1. Tehran and Tokyo are at approximately the same latitude.
Tehran and Tokyo are both, to the nearest tenth of a degree of latitude, at 35.7°N. I decided to start this list with one of the ones I still can’t get over, because I still mentally associate Japan with being far-north and Iran with being barely that far north. Yet each time I consult a globe, it tells me my heuristics are wrong.
2. England’s population is far more than that of the rest of the United Kingdom.
As much as I would expect England’s population to be the greatest, my mind doesn’t seem to want to get over the fact that it’s greater by that much. Here’s some recent population estimates:
England: 53 000 000
Scotland: 5 300 000
Wales: 3 100 000
Northern Ireland: 1 800 000
Here’s some other population numbers to compare with:
Canada: 33 500 000
Australia: 21 500 000
3. Ireland’s population still hasn’t recovered to levels before the potato famine.
Ireland (considering counties that constitute what is now the Republic of Ireland) had 6 500 000 people prior to the potato famine. Currently, its population is about 4 600 000.
4. Colombia has more population than Argentina.
The two countries don’t take census at the same time, and recent estimates are also time-staggered, but only 6 months apart, not enough to make the difference.
Colombia: 49 000 000
Argentina: 43 800 000
5. Ecuador has far more population than Paraguay.
Ecuador: 16 100 000
Paraguay: 6 800 000
6. In decreasing order of population, the Nordic countries are Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland.
And how much less populous is Iceland?
Sweden: 10 000 000
Denmark: 5 700 000
Finland: 5 500 000
Norway: 5 300 000
Iceland: 300 000
7. The combined population of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunuvut is barely above 100 thousand.
Specifically, it is about 107 000. Of course, these are extremely northern areas so one would expect population to be small, but I still find that even for a really northern area, this is outrageously small. Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunuvut together cover over 3 million square kilometers, an area about twice the size of Alaska, which is about as far north. But Alaska, even though already an extremely sparsely populated land, has about 738 000 people, nearly seven times the population of this area.
8. The island of Hispaniola has more population than Cuba.
Hispaniola consists of Haiti, whose population is 10 600 000, and the Dominican Republic, whose population is 10 100 000. Cuba’s population is 11 200 000.
Incidentally, compare Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which are halves of a Caribbean island, in population to some areas listed above on this page.
9. One state of India has nearly one-sixth its population.
One administrative region having one-sixth the population of a country isn’t that eye-opening. One administrative region having one-sixth the population of a country that is India is freakishly eye-opening. Uttar Pradesh, which occupies an area half the size of California, is home to 200 000 000 Indians, a population comparable to that of Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country.
10. One island of Indonesia has more than half its population.
Though Sumatera (Sumatra), Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi, and Papua (New Guinea) are also Indonesian islands and larger in area, Jawa (Java) has 145 000 000 of Indonesia’s 255 000 000 people. (Prior, Indonesian names of islands are given in main text with more international names parenthesized.)
Compare Jawa’s population to those of England, Canada, Australia, and Argentina, listed above, and also to California’s, which is 39 300 000 and in an area about three times Jawa’s.
11. Libya’s population is smaller than Tunisia’s.
Libya: 6 400 000
Tunisia: 11 000 000
12. Most African countries have population densities significantly lower than those of Eurasian countries.
With the exception of a few countries like Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Uganda, Africa is actually a land of unusually low population densities.
For comparisons of a selection of countries:
People per square kilometer:
Democratic Republic of the Congo: 36
South Africa: 43
United Arab Emirates: 118
South Korea: 507
13. Lithuania borders Russia.
I include this fact because it exhibits a “double inversion”.
Probably because the first-approximation descriptor of the geographic situation of the Baltic states in my head is “the tiny countries between Russia and the Baltic Sea”, I think of all three as having an eastern border with Russia, but this is incorrect!
Belarus stands in the way between Lithuania and Russia along Lithuania’s entire Eastern border. And yet, the first-level unintuitive result “Lithuania doesn’t border Russia” is also incorrect, because Lithuania does border Russia, in that it borders the Russian exclave of the Kaliningrad Oblast.
So Lithuania does in fact border Russia; it’s just that its border with it is on its west side.
14. North Korea borders Russia.
It has a tiny border with Russia. It is only 17 km long. An apparent Chinese division between North Korea and Russia in fact doesn’t go all the way, and gets even closer than one might first expect upon a closer zoom to the border situation.
15. Xinjiang is larger in area than Inner Mongolia.
Although I don’t feel it as much as I used to, my eyeballing still sees Inner Mongolia as larger than Xinjiang.
16. Arizona is larger in area than Nevada.
17. Utah is larger in area than Idaho.
18. The Sakha Republic is larger in area than Western Australia.
These are other cases in which my eyes seem to be lying to me.
19. Australia Highway 1 is longer than the Trans-Siberian Highway.
I very early on realized that I systemically underestimate the circumference of circles in comparison to other lengths. (I also suspect this is the case with humans in general.) Even in consideration of this, I find myself not believing that making one’s way around the Australian coast can cover a distance spanning greater than the vast majesty of Russia.
20. Guayaquil receives 200 times as much precipitation as Lima.
Until I saw the numbers, I always considered Guayaquil’s and Lima’s geographic situations to be very similar. They’re both cities on South America’s equatorial-range west coast. Yet the 1100 kilometers between them are the difference between Guayaquil’s >1200 mm of rain a year and Lima’s constant desert.
21. In the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter and Spring, Mumbai experiences less precipitation on average than Death Valley.
Here are precipitation averages in Furnace Creek in Death Valley for the months of December through May, in milimeters:
Here’s the same for Mumbai:
Of course, you’d naturally ask what Mumbai’s numbers look like after May. Here you go: it’s June average is 523.1 mm. On this topic…
22. Mumbai’s monsoon season is intense enough such that despite being in the Northern Hemisphere its coolest month is August.
I write using the Gregorian months despite having objection to them only because they’re the only standard against which meteorological data is available. It would, of course, be a lot more reasonable if meteorologists collected data in divisions aligned with where equinoxes and solstices actually fell.
23. Ankara is actually a fairly cold city.
Because I associate Turkey with the Mediterranean and its nice climates, it really surprised me when I first found out about how cold a lot of it gets. Ankara’s January mean is 0°C.
24. Astana is actually a very cold city.
Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, is hugely colder than I imagined before I first saw its meteorological numbers. Its January mean is -14°C, and its record low is a mercury-freezing -52°C.
Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, does not get nearly as cold.
25. The Kerguelen Islands and Bouvet Island are not too climatologically different.
At first, it seems the 4° of Latitude difference between the two makes a world of difference, as Google image searching the Kerguelen Islands seems to reveal a possibly livable place, while Google image searching Bouvet Island seems to reveal a frozen forlorn land. It turns out that the temperature difference between the two in corresponding months of the year is not actually that large, although neither has a very large range in temperature span, thus causing the temperature difference to possibly seem large.
Both lie south of the Antarctic Convergence.
26. Azerbaijan is majority Shia Muslim.
Azerbaijan is in fact Shia Muslim by a vast majority (>90%). What they taught us in 7th grade about Iraq and Iran being the only majority-Shia countries is wrong.
Incidentally, Bahrain is also majority Shia. The fact that it is ruled by Sunnis despite having a Shia majority is one source of recent unrest in the country, although not nearly to the extent of some other recent instances of a minority Islamic sect being the sect in power in an Arab state.
27. Most countries recognize both Israel and Palestine.
Most countries of the world don’t actually take a side on the Israel-Palestine issue enough to derecognize the legitimacy of one of them. Many countries like China, India, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey recognize both Israel and Palestine. Most countries that only recognize Israel are the US’s closest allies and most countries that only recognize Palestine are either majority-Muslim countries or hate the US (like North Korea).
28. Texas is about the size of France.
I’ll end with one I definitely had to look at map the first time I heard this comparison, and one I still sometimes think about. Texas is usually associated with being large, and European countries are known to be particularly small. Well, it turns out Texas and France actually do have comparable sizes.
As a sort of appendix, I’ll add some facts that I haven’t actually found unintuitive, but that it seems many people do.
A. Reno is further west than Los Angeles.
This is possibly the classic directional-unintuitive fun fact. It has always occurred to me as a strange thing to point out, because I’ve never found this actually weird. This could be affected by the fact that I grew up a Californian and a lover of maps, and have been to both Reno and Los Angeles several times and have been very aware of California’s curvature.
B. Canada is about the size of the US.
It definitely seems wrong until one considers that Alaska is part of the US. I think considering Alaska actually makes this rather believable. When I first saw the similarity of the numbers, I was sure it was wrong until I remembered Alaska.
C. Norway borders Russia.
This border occurs all the way at the northern cape of Scandinavia. It’s often forgotten due to most focus on Nordic countries being on their southern parts, and thus the lack of realization that Sweden and Finland don’t extend all the way northward.
A few years ago when Russia was experimenting with permanent daylight savings time, walking across the Norway-Russia border would advance three entire time zones.