Official name: Independent State of Papua New Guinea
Area: 462,840 square kilometers (178,704 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount Wilhelm (4,509 meters/14,793 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Southern and Eastern
Time zone: 10 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 2,082 kilometers (1,294 miles) from north-northeast to south-southwest, 1,156 kilometers (718 miles) from east-southeast to west-northwest
Land boundaries: 820 kilometers (510 miles) total boundary length, all with Indonesia
Coastline: 5,152 kilometers (3,201 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
The territory of Papua New Guinea includes the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and a group of offshore islands, all located in the southwest Pacific between the Coral Sea and the South Pacific Ocean. The country shares a land border with Indonesia. With a total area of about 462,840 square kilometers (178,704 square miles), the country is slightly larger than the state of California. Papua New Guinea is divided into twenty provinces.
Papua New Guinea has no outside territories or dependencies.
Papua New Guinea is a tropical country, but it has two main seasons and two transition periods: December through March brings the northwest monsoon, April is a transition month, May through October brings the southeast monsoon, and November is a transition month. Average lowland temperatures range from 21°C to 32°C (70°F to 90°F) while the Highlands have temperatures as cold as 3°C (37°F). Lowland humidity averages 75 percent to 90 percent, and Highland humidity averages 65 percent to 80 percent.
Most of Papua New Guinea gets its rain from the northwest monsoon from December through March, but some areas, such as Lae and the Trobriand Islands, get their main rainfall from May through October. The Solomon Islands and the Louisiade Archipelago are out of the monsoon pattern, so rainfall occurs there year-round.
Port Moresby receives less than 127 centimeters (50 inches) of rain per year. Rainfall is heaviest in the island of New Guinea's western river basin region, averaging up to 584 centimeters (230 inches) a year. The average annual rainfall for all of Papua New Guinea is 203 to 254 centimeters (80 to 100 inches). Snow and ice cover the highest mountain peaks.
The island of New Guinea, the second-largest in the world (820,003 square kilometers/ 316,605 square miles), is divided in half between Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya.) The border between the two is a nearly straight north-south line. The island of New Guinea was formed by the colliding Australian and Pacific Tectonic Plates. New Guinea's mountains have isolated the surrounding regions from one another, producing diversity in languages, customs, and wildlife. The mountains form chains crossing the island, with riverine plains interspersed. Hundreds of smaller volcanic and coral islands lie off the eastern shore to complete the nation of Papua New Guinea, but 85 percent of the total land area is on the island of New Guinea itself.
The seas surrounding New Guinea all belong to the Pacific Ocean. The Bismarck Sea is to the north of the main island of New Guinea and is encircled by the Bismarck Archipelago. To the east of New Guinea is the Solomon Sea, which is enclosed by New Britain, Bougainville, and the Solomon and Trobriand Islands. The Coral Sea is south of New Guinea and north of Australia.
About 40,000 square kilometers (15,444 square miles) of coral reefs, rich in marine life, lie close to the shore of New Guinea. The Ontong Java Plateau, one of the world's largest ocean lava platforms, is to the northeast of New Guinea. The Eastern and Papuan Plateaus lie beneath the Coral Sea.
The D'Entrecasteaux Islands enclose Milne Bay at the southeastern end of New Guinea. The Gulf of Papua is an inlet of the Coral Sea on Papua New Guinea's southern coast. The coast indents at Astrolabe Bay near the town of Madang. The Torres Strait separates New Guinea from the northern tip of Australia and leads to the Arafura Sea of Indonesia. The Vitiaz Strait flows between the Huon Peninsula and New Britain. The natural harbor of Port Moresby, the nation's capital, is situated on the south side of the arm of southeast New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea includes more than fourteen hundred islands besides New Guinea itself. Off the north coast of New Guinea are the volcanic Manam, Karkar, Long, and Umboi Islands. To the east of New Guinea are the islands of the Bismarck Sea and Solomon Sea. A chain of volcanoes formed New Britain Island, in the western Bismarck Archipelago. New Ireland, also in the western Bismarck Archipelago, contains limestone mountains. New Hanover and Mussau are smaller islands in the same area. Further west in the Bismarck Archipelago is Manus. Manus and the surrounding coral atolls form the Admiralty Islands.
The two largest islands in Papua New Guinea are the mountainous, mineral-rich Bougainville, which is 204 kilometers (127 miles) long and 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide; and Buka, which is 56 kilometers (35 miles) long and 14 kilometers (9 miles) wide. These two land masses are part of the chain of islands known as the Solomon Islands (not to be confused with the country of that same name). There are also many small atolls near these islands.
Many of the twenty-two small islands comprising the Trobriand Group in the Solomon Sea are low coral types. They include Kaileuna, Kiriwina, Kitava, and Vakuta. Other island groups in the Solomon Sea include the D'Entrecasteaux Group, the Louisiade Archipelago, and the Woodlark Group.
The northern coast of Papua New Guinea slopes to the southeast from the Indonesian border along Cape Moem and the outlets of the Sepik and Ramu Rivers. In the southeast, the Huon Peninsula protrudes above the Huon Gulf, an indentation of the Solomon Sea. Cape Ward Hunt extends southeast from the Huon Gulf, leading into the long arm of southeast New Guinea, formed by the Owen Stanley Range.
The largest lake in the country is Lake Murray. It is a 647-square-kilometer (250-square-mile) freshwater lake that connects with the Strickland River in western New Guinea. The lake and river both are badly polluted with chemicals from nearby mining operations. Lake Kutubu, in the southern Highlands, has been designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The 49-square-kilometer (19-square-mile) site includes the pristine lake and adjacent swamp forest. The lake contains ten unique fish species.
The Muruk Lakes are a group of freshwater lakes and saltwater lagoons in the Sepik River region with mangrove forests around them. Also in the Sepik region are the Blackwater Lakes and the Chambri Lakes, a 216-square-kilometer (83-square-mile) system of linked shallow lakes and swamps.
The Fly, Purari, and Kikori Rivers all flow southward into the Gulf of Papua. The Sepik, Markham, and Ramu Rivers flow northward into the Pacific. The Fly River and Sepik River are crucial transportation routes. Rising in the Star Mountains, the twisting Fly River is navigable for 805 kilometers (500 miles). It is 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide at its entry to the Gulf of Papua. The Fly forms a 1,200-kilometer-long (746-mile-long) river system with the Ok Tedi and Strickland Rivers, creating the largest river network in the country. The Sepik River, which is 1,126 kilometers (698 miles) long, has its source in the Victor Emmanuel Mountains. It is wide and navigable throughout its entire length and has no real delta.
Savannahs, mixed with scrub woods and swamps, stretch from the Fly and Sepik Rivers into Indonesian Papua. These coastal grasslands flood during the rainy season.
There are no desert regions in Papua New Guinea.
Tonda Wildlife Management Area is also a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. It is located near the Indonesian Papua border and covers an area of about 5,900 square kilometers (2,278 square miles). The site includes coastal plains that flood seasonally as well as grasslands and mangroves, all of which are waterbird habitat.
Tropical rainforest covers as much as 77 percent of Papua New Guinea. These forests are a wealth of biodiversity. Papua New Guinea has an estimated 11,000 plant species, 250 mammal species, and 700 bird species.
The steep mountains of the Highlands have very few foothills. Hill areas of the island of New Guinea include the upper Sepik region and the countryside surrounding Port Moresby.
The valleys in the central Highlands have grasslands that were produced by burning forests to clear land for agriculture. Alpine grasslands exist at elevations above 3,353 meters (11,000 feet), where there is a moist, cool climate.
The island of New Guinea is rugged, with many high peaks. At the center of the island are the Highlands, which include the Bismarck Range. Papua New Guinea's highest peak, Mount Wilhelm (4,509 meters/14,793 feet), is in the Bismarck Range. The second-highest summit, also in the central mountain complex, is Mount Giluwe, an extinct volcano at an elevation of 4,367 meters (14,327 feet). Another major mountain range, the Owen Stanley, is found in the southeast. The highest peak there is Mount Victoria (4,073 meters/13,363 feet). The Finisterre, Sarawat, and Rawlinson ranges line the northeast coast. They are made of coral limestone and extend into New Guinea from the sea. In the west of New Guinea, near the Indonesian Papua border, the Star, Hindenburg, and Victor Emmanuel ranges also are made of limestone.
Many of the islands in Papua New Guinea are volcanic in origin, with rugged terrain and peaks above 1,524 meters (5,000 feet). The Father, on New Britain, rises to 2,300 meters (7,546 feet), but the tallest peak on the outer islands is Balbi (2,743 meters/8,999 feet), located on Bougainville.
Most of the active volcanoes are on the southeastern arm of New Guinea, the large island of New Britain, and other islands.
Numerous canyons, gorges, and ravines slice through the rugged mountain terrain of New Guinea. The upper Fly River has many deep gorges. The region between the northeastern coastal mountains and the central Highlands, where the Sepik and Markham Rivers and their tributaries flow, is known as the Central Depression.
In the west of New Guinea, the Star, Hindenburg, and Victor Emmanuel ranges contain many deep limestone caves.
The Great Papuan Plateau is in the central mountains, rising 1,500 to 2,000 meters (4,921 to 6,562 feet) above sea level. It is a limestone formation, with many caves and petroleum deposits. The Oriomo Plateau rises in the west. Nine rivers run through it from east to west into Indonesian Papua. Tabubil Plateau, also in the west, is the site of the enormous Ok Tedi copper and gold mine. Sogeri Plateau, on the outskirts of Port Moresby, is 800 meters (2,625 feet) in elevation and is home to many bird species.
There are no significant man-made structures affecting the geography of Papua New Guinea.
The Ok Tedi mine is a major producer of copper concentrate for the world smelting market. It is located on Mount Fubilan in the Star Mountains of western New Guinea. An average of 80,000 metric tons of material are mined each day. In 2001, Ok Tedi Mining Limited exported 694,900 dry metric tons of copper concentrate. This mixture contained 203,762 tons of copper, 455,222 ounces of gold, and 1,150,031 ounces of silver. At this rate of production, the mine will be depleted of its resources by 2010.
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Salak, Kira. Four Corners: Into the Heart of New Guinea . New York: Counterpoint Press, 2001.
Sillitoe, Paul. A Place Against Time: Land and Environment in the Papua New Guinea Highlands . New York: Routledge, 1996.
Theroux, Paul. "The Spell of the Trobriand Islands." National Geographic , July 1992, 117-136.