The Highest Island Elevation

On March 11, 2010 · 3 Comments

What’s the highest island elevation? Why do I find so many different answer when I try to track it down? I thought it was a rather straightforward question but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Elevation, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s review some of the candidates and see if we can better differentiate among them.

The Tallest Island Mountain

A measurement from the base of a mountain to it’s peak is one way to define elevation (notice I didn’t say elevation above sea level). There are of course many mountains that form at the bottom of the sea and poke their summits above the surface to form islands. Some of those barely rise above the waters while others reach astounding heights.

When I first considered the question my mind naturally wandered to Mauna Loa on Hawaii‘s Big Island. That’s because I’m captive to my cultural upbringing and I gravitate to U.S. examples quite naturally. That doesn’t make the answer correct but it does serve as a reference point for further exploration.

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Mauna Loa rises 4,169 metres (13,679 feet) above sea level, which is impressive enough, but it’s the rest of the mountain below the waterline that makes this place truly special. From sea floor to mountain tip, Mauna Loa reaches 10,099 m (33,132 ft).

I won’t dispute those facts but it sounds a little bogus to me if we’re talking about the highest island elevation. The island part of the mountain, by definition, sits above the surface. Let’s set this poseur aside. If I can’t see it I don’t count it.

There’s an interesting bit of trivia here if you’ll indulge me for just a moment and allow me to go off on a small tangent. Mauna Loa may be the tallest mountain from base to peak, but it doesn’t capture the highest elevation above sea level on the island of Hawaii. No, the island highpoint, indeed the state highpoint can be found on nearby Mauna Kea at 4,207 m (13,803 ft). I guess that has something to do with the topography of the Hawaiian Trench along the sea floor. Maybe it undulates a certain way at the base of Mauna Loa.

The Highest Elevation of a Non-Continental Island

That’s a mouthful. I had to use that level of detail to differentiate it from other possibilities. You’ll see why in a moment.

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This is the kind of island I think of reflexively when the notion of a "tall" island comes to mind. This is the stereotype. Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are great examples but not the best. That title goes to the island of New Guinea. A mountain on the Indonesian side of the border called Puncak Jaya or Mount Djaja blows those Hawaiian examples right out of the water at 4,884 m (16,024 ft).

Look in lots of places around the Intertubes and you’ll be told insistently that this highest island. It’s even listed first on Wikipedias’ List of islands by highest point. That sounds great. Truly impressive. Now, can we examine this a little differently and find another answer?

The Highest Island Elevation

Let’s continue with elevation above sea level but not limit ourselves to non-continental islands. Any island anywhere would be eligible for consideration.

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I can’t answer this definitively but one great candidate would be the small islands on Orba Co (Wo’er Bacuo) lake in Tibet. The World Island Information website’s Island Superlatives page claims that these are the highest in the world at 5,209 m (17,090 ft).

Personally I like this answer the best. I find a lot of satisfaction pondering the possibility that the highest island elevation might exist on one of these tiny flyspecks without names on a remote Tibetan lake. Now that’s a geo-oddity.

What do you think? Is the highest island Mauna Loa, New Guinea or a pimple on Orba Co Lake? Does the award go to the United States, Indonesia or China? Or are there other candidate I’ve completely overlooked?

On March 11, 2010 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “The Highest Island Elevation”

  1. Chaser says:

    I’d have to give this one to the Indonesians. When I read the header, I immediately thought, “He’s going to have trouble defining this one.”

    You’ve come up with great examples, but I think when people think about elevation they think from the edge of the water to the top of the mountain.

    As inviting as the islands of Orba Co may be, I doubt many would consider them anything but the “islands situated at the highest elevation above sea level”.

  2. Luckily English (at least) has two distinct words high and tall.

    I trust you’re familiar with topographic prominence. It bugs me that the lists I’ve seen of mountains ranked by prominence all use water-level as the minimum elevation; what about all the submerged mountain chains, like the Antilles? Why not measure the prominence of Etna or Ben Nevis with respect to Mont Blanc?

  3. Lincoln Ho says:

    There’s an HD documentary on that island in Tibet. I think it was called the ‘lake in the sky’. It was a really neat documentary as it showed that it experienced all the seasons all in one day. They need that island to keep the sheep alive, so in the late fall they bring them over to the island to graze the grass that is left. It was really informative.

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