Where are the mountains?

Posted: 9 May 2008

Anyone who looks at or walks up a mountain knows what it is, but only recently has it been possible to come up with a precise figure for the proportion of the Earth's land surface covered by mountains: 24 per cent.

Mt EverestMount EverestThis was made possible by using a global database which records the average altitude of every square kilometre of the Earth's land surface, and defining rules relating to altitude, slope and local relief. The distribution of mountains in different elevation classes in different parts of the world can be found by clicking here.

Maps of the mountains in different parts of the world may be obtained by clicking here.

Highest mountains

The highest mountain on our planet, measured from its base 4,931 m below the sea surface, is Mauna Loa, Hawaii's tallest mountain, which rises to 4,169 m above sea level.

Mauna Loa
Mauna Loa
Mauna Loa, a massive shield volcano on Hawaii, is seen in the distance behind the snowy crater.
However, it is more usual to measure mountains from sea level. Climbing the highest mountain above sea level on every continent - the "Seven Summits" - has become a challenge for many keen mountaineers. The highest mountains are:
AconcaguaSouth America6,962
McKinley/DenaliNorth America6,194
Puncak JayaAustralia/Oceania5,030
Vinson MassifAntarctica4,897

Another mountaineering challenge is to climb all the peaks over 8,000 m, which are all in Asia's Hindu Kush-Himalaya, which contains 66 peaks above 7,000 m.

  • Of the world's current roster of 185 countries, only 46 have no mountains or high plateaux - and most of those are small island nations.

  • The longest north-south mountain system in the world is formed by the cordilleras of the New World, forming a major barrier stretching from the Antarctic far into the Arctic. The South American Andes alone are 7,250 km in length.

  • The Himalaya form an arc 3.4 million square kilometres in area and more than 2,500 km long, merging into the Hengduan to the east and the Karakorum and Hindu Kush to the west. In total, the ranges and plateaux of mainland Asia are nearly 8,000 km long.

  • The Alps have an area of 240,000 square kilometres. They are 1,000 km long and from 130 to 250 km wide. They are the only mountain range defined by an international convention (the Alpine Convention)

  • The Sierra Nevada, are the longest (640 km) and highest (Mt. Whitney, 4,418 m) unbroken range in the continental USA.

Primary sources:

B. Debarbieux, J-J. Delannoy and J-F Dobremez (2000) Les pays du monde et leurs montagnes. Editions Revue de Geographie Alpine, Grenoble.

H. Gurung (1999) Mountains of Asia: A Regional Inventory, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Katmandu.

Mountain Institute: Explore mountains

Compiled by Dr Martin Price, Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, within Scotland's UHI Millennium Institute, 'creating the University of the Highlands and Islands', with co-operation from Development and Environment Info Service, a mandate of Swiss Agency of Development Co-operation (SDC).