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Aerial image of Suderoog, a privately owned island belonging to the Halligen group of islands in Germany Aerial image of the Hallig Suderoog at high tide.jpg
Aerial image of Süderoog, a privately owned island belonging to the Halligen group of islands in Germany

An island or isle is a piece of subcontinental land completely surrounded by water. Very small islands such as emergent land features on atolls can be called islets, skerries, cays or keys. An island in a river or a lake island may be called an eyot or ait, and a small island off the coast may be called a holm. Sedimentary islands in the Ganges Delta are called chars. A grouping of geographically or geologically related islands, such as the Philippines, is referred to as an archipelago.


There are two main types of islands in the sea: continental islands and oceanic islands. There are also artificial islands (man-made islands).

There are about 900,000 official islands in the world. This number consists of all the officially-reported islands of each country. The total number of islands in the world is unknown. There may be hundreds of thousands of tiny islands that are unknown and uncounted. [1] The number of sea islands in the world is estimated to be more than 200,000. The total area of the world's sea islands is approx. 9,963,000 sq km, which is similar to the area of Canada and accounts for roughly 1/15 (or 6.7%) of the total land area of Earth. [2]


The word island derives from Middle English iland , from Old English igland (from ig or ieg, similarly meaning 'island' when used independently, and -land carrying its contemporary meaning; cf. Dutch eiland ("island"), German Eiland ("small island")). However, the spelling of the word was modified in the 15th century because of a false etymology caused by an incorrect association with the etymologically unrelated Old French loanword isle, which itself comes from the Latin word insula. [3] [4] Old English ieg is actually a cognate of Swedish ö and German Aue, and related to Latin aqua (water). [5]

Relationships with continents

Differentiation from continents

Dymaxion world map with the continental landmasses (Roman numerals) and 30 largest islands (Arabic numerals) roughly to scale Fuller projection with largest islands.svg
Dymaxion world map with the continental landmasses (Roman numerals) and 30 largest islands (Arabic numerals) roughly to scale

There is no standard of size that distinguishes islands from continents, [6] or from islets. [7]

There is a widely accepted difference between islands and continents in terms of geology. [8] Continents are often considered to be the largest landmass of a particular continental plate; this holds true for Australia, which sits on its own continental lithosphere and tectonic plate (the Australian Plate). [9]

By contrast, islands are usually seen as being extensions of the oceanic crust (e.g. volcanic islands), or as belonging to a continental plate containing a larger landmass (continental islands); the latter is the case of Greenland, which sits on the North American Plate. [10]

Continental islands

Continental islands are bodies of land that lie on the continental shelf of a continent. [11] Examples are Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Sakhalin, Taiwan and Hainan off Asia; New Guinea, Tasmania, and Kangaroo Island off Australia; Great Britain, Ireland, and Sicily off Europe; Greenland, Newfoundland, Long Island, and Sable Island off North America; and Barbados, the Falkland Islands, and Trinidad off South America.

Microcontinental islands

A special type of continental island is the microcontinental island, which is created when a continent is horizontally displaced or rifted. [12] [13] Examples are Madagascar and Socotra off Africa, New Caledonia, New Zealand, and some of the Seychelles. [13]

Subcontinental islands

A lake such as Wollaston Lake drains in two different directions, thus creating an island. If this island has a seashore as well as being encircled by two river systems, it becomes what might be called a subcontinental island. The one formed by Wollaston Lake is very large, about 2,000,000 km2 (770,000 sq mi). [14]


Another subtype is an island or bar formed by deposition of tiny rocks where water current loses some of its carrying capacity. This includes:

Oceanic islands

Tectonic versus volcanic

Oceanic islands are typically considered to be islands that do not sit on continental shelves. Other definitions limit the term to only refer to islands with no past geological connections to a continental landmass. [18] The vast majority are volcanic in origin, such as Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, and the archipelago of Bermuda in the North Atlantic Ocean (a limestone capped volcanic seamount). [19] [20] The few oceanic islands that are not volcanic are tectonic in origin and arise where plate movements have lifted up the ocean floor above the surface. Examples are the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean and Macquarie Island in the South Pacific Ocean.

Volcanic islands


One type of volcanic oceanic island is found in a volcanic island arc. These islands arise from volcanoes where the subduction of one plate under another is occurring. Examples are the Aleutian Islands, the Mariana Islands, and most of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. [21] [22] The only examples in the Atlantic Ocean are some of the Lesser Antilles and the South Sandwich Islands.

Oceanic rifts

Another type of volcanic oceanic island occurs where an oceanic rift reaches the surface. There are two examples: Iceland, which is the world's second-largest volcanic island, and Jan Mayen. Both islands are in the Atlantic Ocean.


A third type of volcanic oceanic island is formed over volcanic hotspots. A hotspot is more or less stationary relative to the moving tectonic plate above it, so a chain of islands results as the plate drifts. Over long periods of time, this type of island is eventually "drowned" by isostatic adjustment and eroded, becoming a seamount. [23] Plate movement across a hot-spot produces a line of islands oriented in the direction of the plate movement. An example is the Hawaiian Islands, from Hawaii to Kure, which continue beneath the sea surface in a more northerly direction as the Emperor Seamounts. Another chain with similar orientation is the Tuamotu Archipelago; its older, northerly trend is the Line Islands. The southernmost chain is the Austral Islands, with its northerly trending part the atolls in the nation of Tuvalu. Tristan da Cunha is an example of a hotspot volcano in the Atlantic Ocean. [24] Another hotspot in the Atlantic is the island of Surtsey, which was formed in 1963. [25]


An atoll is an island formed from a coral reef that has grown on an eroded and submerged volcanic island. The reef rises to the surface of the water and forms a new island. Atolls are typically ring-shaped with a central lagoon. Examples are the Line Islands in the Pacific Ocean and Maldives in the Indian Ocean. [26]

Map from Charles Darwin's 1842 The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs showing the world's major groups of atolls and coral reefs On the structure and distribution of coral reefs BHL40453231.jpg
Map from Charles Darwin's 1842 The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs showing the world's major groups of atolls and coral reefs

Tropical islands

Plane landing on an airport island, Velana International Airport, Hulhule Island, Maldives Landing Runway 18 (2121588367).jpg
Plane landing on an airport island, Velana International Airport, Hulhulé Island, Maldives

Approximately 45,000 tropical islands with an area of at least 5 hectares (12 acres) exist. [27] Examples formed from coral reefs include Maldives, Tonga, Samoa, Nauru, and Polynesia. [27] Granite islands include Seychelles [28] and Tioman.

The socio-economic diversity of tropical islands ranges from the Stone Age societies in the interior of North Sentinel, Madagascar, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea to the high-tech lifestyles of the city-islands of Singapore and Hong Kong. [29] International tourism is a significant factor in the economy of many tropical islands including Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Réunion, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Maldives.


The process of de-islandisation is often concerning bridging, but there are other forms of linkages such as causeways: fixed transport links across narrow necks of water, some of which are only operative at low tides (e.g. that connecting Cornwall's St Michael's Mount to the peninsular mainland), while others (such as the Canso Causeway connecting Cape Breton to the Nova Scotia mainland) are usable all year round (aside from interruptions during storm surge periods). [30] [31]

Some places may retain "island" in their names for historical reasons after being connected to a larger landmass by a land bridge or landfill, such as Coney Island and Coronado Island, though these are, strictly speaking, tied islands. [31] Conversely, when a piece of land is separated from the mainland by a man-made canal, for example the Peloponnese by the Corinth Canal, more or less the entirety of Fennoscandia by the White Sea Canal, or Marble Hill in northern Manhattan during the time between the building of the United States Ship Canal and the filling in of the Harlem River which surrounded the area, it is generally not considered an island.

Another type of connection is fostered by harbor walls/breakwaters that incorporate offshore islets into their structures, such as those in Sai harbor in northern Honshu, Japan, and the connection to the mainland which transformed Ilhéu do Diego from an islet. De-islanded through its fixed link to the mainland, the former islet's name, Ilhéu do Diego, became functionally redundant (and thereby archaic) and the location took the fort as its namesake. Some former island sites have retained designations as islands after the draining/subsidence of surrounding waters and their fixed linkage to land (England's Isle of Ely and Vancouver's Granville Island being respective cases in point). Their names are thereby archaic in that they reflect the islands' pasts rather than their present structures or transport logistics. Other examples include Singapore and its causeway, and the various Dutch delta islands, such as IJsselmonde.

Artificial islands

Almost all of Earth's islands are natural and have been formed by tectonic forces or volcanic eruptions. However, artificial (man-made) islands also exist, such as the island in Osaka Bay off the Japanese island of Honshu, on which Kansai International Airport is located. Artificial islands can be built using natural materials (e.g., earth, rock, or sand) or artificial ones (e.g., concrete slabs or recycled waste). [32] [33]

Sometimes natural islands are artificially enlarged, such as Vasilyevsky Island in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, which had its western shore extended westward by some 0.5 km in the construction of the Passenger Port of St. Petersburg. [34]

Kansai International Airport, on an artificial island Kansai International Airport Aerial photograph.2007.jpg
Kansai International Airport, on an artificial island

Artificial islands are sometimes built on pre-existing "low-tide elevation," a naturally formed area of land which is surrounded by and above water at low tide but submerged at high tide. Legally these are not islands and have no territorial sea of their own. [35]

Island superlatives

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archipelago</span> Collection of islands

An archipelago, sometimes called an island group or island chain, is a chain, cluster, or collection of islands, or sometimes a sea containing a small number of scattered islands.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Samoa</span>

The Samoan archipelago is a chain of 16 islands and numerous seamounts covering 3,123 km2 (1,206 sq mi) in the central South Pacific, south of the equator, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, forming part of Polynesia and of the wider region of Oceania. The islands are Savaiʻi, Upolu, Tutuila, ’Uvea, Taʻū, Ofu, Olosega, Apolima, Manono, Nuʻutele, Niulakita, Nuʻulua, Namua, Fanuatapu, Rose Atoll, Nu'ulopa, as well as the submerged Vailuluʻu, Pasco banks, and Alexa Bank.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hawaiian Islands</span> Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean

The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago of eight major volcanic islands, several atolls, and numerous smaller islets in the North Pacific Ocean, extending some 1,500 miles from the island of Hawaiʻi in the south to northernmost Kure Atoll. Formerly the group was known to Europeans and Americans as the Sandwich Islands, a name that James Cook chose in honor of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, the then First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook came across the islands by chance when crossing the Pacific Ocean on his Third Voyage in 1778, on board HMS Resolution; he was later killed on the islands on a return visit. The contemporary name of the islands, dating from the 1840s, is derived from the name of the largest island, Hawaiʻi Island.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Guyot</span> Isolated, flat-topped underwater volcano mountain

In marine geology, a guyot, also called a tablemount, is an isolated underwater volcanic mountain (seamount) with a flat top more than 200 m (660 ft) below the surface of the sea. The diameters of these flat summits can exceed 10 km (6.2 mi). Guyots are most commonly found in the Pacific Ocean, but they have been identified in all the oceans except the Arctic Ocean. They are analogous to tables on land.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Seamount</span> Mountain rising from the ocean seafloor that does not reach to the waters surface

A seamount is a large submarine landform that rises from the ocean floor without reaching the water surface, and thus is not an island, islet, or cliff-rock. Seamounts are typically formed from extinct volcanoes that rise abruptly and are usually found rising from the seafloor to 1,000–4,000 m (3,300–13,100 ft) in height. They are defined by oceanographers as independent features that rise to at least 1,000 m (3,281 ft) above the seafloor, characteristically of conical form. The peaks are often found hundreds to thousands of meters below the surface, and are therefore considered to be within the deep sea. During their evolution over geologic time, the largest seamounts may reach the sea surface where wave action erodes the summit to form a flat surface. After they have subsided and sunk below the sea surface such flat-top seamounts are called "guyots" or "tablemounts".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oceanian realm</span> Terrestrial biogeographic realm

The Oceanian realm is one of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) biogeographic realms, and is unique in not including any continental land mass. It has the smallest land area of any of the WWF realms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Samoan Islands</span> Archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean

The Samoan Islands are an archipelago covering 3,030 km2 (1,170 sq mi) in the central South Pacific, forming part of Polynesia and of the wider region of Oceania. Administratively, the archipelago comprises all of the Independent State of Samoa and most of American Samoa. The land masses of the two Samoan jurisdictions are separated by 64 km (40 mi) of ocean at their closest points.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain</span> Pacific Ocean geologic feature

The Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain is a mostly undersea mountain range in the Pacific Ocean that reaches above sea level in Hawaii. It is composed of the Hawaiian ridge, consisting of the islands of the Hawaiian chain northwest to Kure Atoll, and the Emperor Seamounts: together they form a vast underwater mountain region of islands and intervening seamounts, atolls, shallows, banks and reefs along a line trending southeast to northwest beneath the northern Pacific Ocean. The seamount chain, containing over 80 identified undersea volcanoes, stretches about 6,200 km (3,900 mi) from the Aleutian Trench in the far northwest Pacific to the Kamaʻehuakanaloa Seamount, the youngest volcano in the chain, which lies about 35 kilometres (22 mi) southeast of the Island of Hawaiʻi.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Large igneous province</span> Huge regional accumulation of igneous rocks

A large igneous province (LIP) is an extremely large accumulation of igneous rocks, including intrusive and extrusive, arising when magma travels through the crust towards the surface. The formation of LIPs is variously attributed to mantle plumes or to processes associated with divergent plate tectonics. The formation of some of the LIPs in the past 500 million years coincide in time with mass extinctions and rapid climatic changes, which has led to numerous hypotheses about causal relationships. LIPs are fundamentally different from any other currently active volcanoes or volcanic systems.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Volcanic island</span> Island of volcanic origin

Geologically, a volcanic island is an island of volcanic origin. The term high island can be used to distinguish such islands from low islands, which are formed from sedimentation or the uplifting of coral reefs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Magmatism</span> Emplacement of magma on the outer layers of a terrestrial planet, which solidifies as igneous rocks

Magmatism is the emplacement of magma within and at the surface of the outer layers of a terrestrial planet, which solidifies as igneous rocks. It does so through magmatic activity or igneous activity, the production, intrusion and extrusion of magma or lava. Volcanism is the surface expression of magmatism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Volcanic belt</span> Large volcanically active region

A volcanic belt is a large volcanically active region. Other terms are used for smaller areas of activity, such as volcanic fields. Volcanic belts are found above zones of unusually high temperature where magma is created by partial melting of solid material in the Earth's crust and upper mantle. These areas usually form along tectonic plate boundaries at depths of 10 to 50 kilometres. For example, volcanoes in Mexico and western North America are mostly in volcanic belts, such as the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt that extends 900 kilometres (560 mi) from west to east across central-southern Mexico and the Northern Cordilleran Volcanic Province in western Canada.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hawaii hotspot</span> Volcanic hotspot located near the Hawaiian Islands, in the northern Pacific Ocean

The Hawaiʻi hotspot is a volcanic hotspot located near the namesake Hawaiian Islands, in the northern Pacific Ocean. One of the best known and intensively studied hotspots in the world, the Hawaii plume is responsible for the creation of the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain, a 6,200-kilometer (3,900 mi) mostly undersea volcanic mountain range. Four of these volcanoes are active, two are dormant; more than 123 are extinct, most now preserved as atolls or seamounts. The chain extends from south of the island of Hawaiʻi to the edge of the Aleutian Trench, near the eastern coast of Russia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geology of Chile</span>

The geology of Chile is a characterized by processes linked to subduction, such as volcanism, earthquakes, and orogeny. The building blocks of Chile's geology were assembled during the Paleozoic Era when Chile was the southwestern margin of the supercontinent Gondwana. In the Jurassic, Gondwana began to split, and the ongoing period of crustal deformation and mountain building known as the Andean orogeny began. In the Late Cenozoic, Chile definitely separated from Antarctica, and the Andes experienced a significant rise accompanied by a cooling climate and the onset of glaciations.

Continental crustal fragments, partly synonymous with microcontinents, are pieces of continents that have broken off from main continental masses to form distinct islands that are often several hundred kilometers from their place of origin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Outline of oceanography</span> Hierarchical outline list of articles related to oceanography

The following outline is provided as an overview of and introduction to Oceanography.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Samoa hotspot</span> Volcanic hotspot located in the south Pacific Ocean

The Samoa hotspot is a volcanic hotspot located in the south Pacific Ocean. The hotspot model describes a hot upwelling plume of magma through the Earth's crust as an explanation of how volcanic islands are formed. The hotspot idea came from J. Tuzo Wilson in 1963 based on the Hawaiian Islands volcanic chain.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geology of the Pacific Ocean</span> Overview about the geology of the Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean evolved in the Mesozoic from the Panthalassic Ocean, which had formed when Rodinia rifted apart around 750 Ma. The first ocean floor which is part of the current Pacific Plate began 160 Ma to the west of the central Pacific and subsequently developed into the largest oceanic plate on Earth.


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