Planet Earth is 71% water. With such thorough coverage, it is unsurprising that the world’s oceans are filled with an abundance of isolated landmasses. Islands range greatly in size. The world’s smallest inhabited island, Bishop Rock, is about the size of three tennis courts. It lies some 28 miles off the Southwestern tip of Great Britain and houses an important lighthouse for sailing through the Isles of Scilly.
Many people would believe that Australia is the world’s largest island at nearly 3 million square miles. However, the proper definition of an island is a landmass that is entirely surrounded by water and is smaller than a continent. In that case, Australia, a continent of its own, is ineligible for consideration as an island.
With Australia disqualified, Greenland is the world’s largest island with an area of 822,700 square miles. Despite its enormous size, Greenland is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world. In 2020, Greenland’s population was just 56,770. That’s a population density of about .07 people per square mile. That’s about one-seventieth the population density of Mongolia (5 people / sq. mile), the country in the world that ranks last by this metric.
To put things into perspective, the 9th largest island in the world, Great Britain, has a population density of 782 people per square mile. If Greenland shared Great Britain’s population density, it would be home to approximately 643 million people and would be the third most populous country in the world after China and India.
However, Greenland isn’t close to the least populous island in the top ten. Baffin Island (5th) has a population of just 13,148, Victoria Island (8th) just 2,162, and Ellesmere Island in Canada is home to just 191 people.
Part of the reason these high-latitude islands are so sparsely populated is that they are blisteringly cold and composed mostly of uninhabitable ice caps. In fact, Greenland is 79% ice. It’s ice sheet is so massive, that if it were to melt, the sea level around the world would rise about 23 feet. Such a dynamic change would classify as a catastrophic climate change event and would result in the submerging of New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego, and the entire state of Florida.
Rising sea levels would also affect the densely populated islands on the other side of the world. Indonesia is home to three of the world’s ten largest islands. New Guinea, Borneo, and Sumatra are all components of the whole of Indonesia which consists of 17,508 islands, roughly 6,000 of which are populated, contributing to the country’s fourth-best 273 million inhabitants.
17,508 is a lot, but surprisingly, it is only the sixth most in the world, coming in just behind the United States which has 18,617 islands. The country in the world with the most islands is Sweden with approximately 221,800 islands. However, most of them are tiny and uninhabited.
The ten largest islands by area are:
The list above is accepted by most. However the pragmatic definition of “island” is, simply, a piece of land surrounded on all sides by water. Technically, all land on Earth is surrounded on all sides by water, including the world’s largest continents. Therefore a consolation list seems prudent to acknowledge the world’s largest landmasses.
The world’s great landmasses in square miles: