Although it’s difficult to determine how many islands exist throughout the world, we do have a lot of information about the largest ones. Some of the largest islands in the world are a single country/territory whereas others are home to more than one country. Some contain lush rainforests whereas others are covered by seemingly endless expanses of snow and ice.
Since there is such a great diversity of islands throughout our planet, it’s only logical to wonder which ones are the largest. Take your best guess and then join us as we explore at the 5 largest islands in the world ranked by surface area.
Note: We’re excluding continental landmasses (such as Australia) from this list as they’re generally not classified as islands.
5. Baffin Island
Baffin Island is the largest island within Canada and the 5th largest island in the entire world. It has the smallest population out of any island on this list, as we’ll soon see. Despite this fact, Baffin Island has been inhabited for over 3,000 years.
The island, which is located in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, was once home to various Paleo-Eskimo cultures for around 2,000 years before ancestors of the modern Inuit people finally began populating the region about 1,000 years ago.
Interestingly enough, the famed viking Leif Erikson is thought to have visited Baffin Island around 1,000 CE while exploring the surrounding region. Erikson is credited as being the first European to set foot on continental North America, which occurred some 500 years before Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean.
The island is named after British explorer William Baffin, who sailed through Baffin Bay during an attempt to locate the fabled Northwest Passage, a northern route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, in the early 17th century. The discovery of the Northwest Passage would not be found until nearly 200 years later.
Baffin Island Statistics:
- Surface Area: 195,928 sq mi (507,451 sq km)
- Country: Canada
- Ocean: Atlantic
- Population: 13,148
Madagascar, located off the east coast of southern Africa, is the 4th largest island and the 2nd largest island country in the world. Although it’s only slightly larger than Baffin Island, Madagascar’s population is almost 2,000 times larger!
The island is famous for its rare and diverse wildlife, 90% of which is not found anywhere else in the world. This is due to the fact that Madagascar broke off from the Indian subcontinent 88 million years ago, an event that allowed the island’s plants and animals to evolve in almost complete isolation.
In modern times, Madagascar faces severe environmental issues that continuously threaten its diverse flora and fauna. Ever since humans arrived some 2,350 years ago, the island is thought to have lost more than 90% of its original forest. This stunning loss of forest was primarily caused by widespread slash and burn agricultural practices as well as the financial incentive to harvest rare timber found throughout the island. Madagascar’s diverse wildlife is also currently threatened due to hunting, clearing of land for agricultural purposes, and invasive species that have been introduced to the island.
In 2003, the Madagascar government announced a program called the ‘Durban Vision’, which sought to triple the amount of protected land and help to conserve the country’s incredible biodiversity.
- Surface Area: 226,658 sq mi (587,041 sq km)
- Country: Madagascar
- Ocean: Indian
- Population: 26,262,313
Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world and the only one to contain three individual countries. Approximately 73% of the island is administered by Indonesia, 26% by Malaysia, and 1% by Brunei, the latter of which is the only country to contain the entirety of its landmass within Borneo.
Similar to Madagascar, Borneo is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. Its rainforest is around 140 million years old, which makes it one of the oldest rainforests in the entire world. Although there are many animals that populate Borneo’s dense rainforests, the most famous is undoubtedly the Bornean Orangutang. Interestingly enough, these great apes are highly intelligent and share 97% of their DNA with humans. Aside from the Bornean Orangutang, the island is also home to endemic species such as the Borneo Elephant, the Eastern Sumatran Rhinoceros, and the Bornean Clouded Leopard.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Borneo was controlled entirely by the empire of Brunei. However, due to its strategic location in relation to the spice trade, European powers began arriving to the island as early as the 16th century. Eventually the Dutch and the British took control over large swaths of the island, which had the effect of substantially reducing Brunei’s territory until it finally became a British protectorate. After World War Two, with colonization on the decline, all three countries eventually gained their independence.
- Surface Area: 288,869 sq mi (748,168 sq km)
- Countries: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia
- Ocean: Pacific
- Population: 21,258,00
2. New Guinea
New Guinea is the 2nd largest island in the world and the largest island south of the equator. The island is separated from the Australian mainland by the Torres Straight, which itself contains 274 islands. The western half of New Guinea is administered by Indonesia whereas the eastern half of the island is administered by Papa New Guinea.
The name New Guinea is credited to Spanish explorer Ynigo Ortiz de Retez, who visited the island in 1545 and noticed many similarities between the natives of the island and those of the Guinea region of Africa.
New Guinea is home to Puncak Jaya, which at 16,024 ft (4,884 m) is the tallest mountain in all of Oceana and the tallest mountain found on any island throughout the world. Aside from Puncak Jaya, New Guinea contains other immense mountains such as Puncak Mandala (15,671 ft), Puncak Trikora (15,584 ft), and Mount Wilhelm (14,793 ft).
Being extremely close to the Australian mainland, it’s no surprise that New Guinea shares much of the same fauna as its southern neighbor. However, the two landmasses are differentiated by their topography, average levels of rainfall, and soil fertility. Additionally, even though it’s much smaller, New Guinea contains approximately the same level of biodiversity as Australia or the United States. For context, all three are thought to contain between 5 and 10% of all known species on the planet.
New Guinea Statistics:
- Surface Area: 303,381 sq mi (785,753 sq km)
- Countries: Indonesia, Papa New Guinea
- Ocean: Pacific
- Population: 11,306,940
Greenland is by far the largest island in the world and it also contains one of only two ice sheets currently in existence, the other being Antarctica. Aside from being the largest island, Greenland’s other claim to fame is the fact that it contains the oldest known rocks on the planet, which date to approximately 3.8 billion years ago.
Additionally, the island also contains the Northeast Greenland National Park, which is the largest National Park in the world. In fact, the park is so large that only 29 countries have a larger landmass than this single protected space!
Greenland is an autonomous territory within Denmark, which means that the island has a certain level of freedom to make their own political decisions. However, there are some matters where Denmark retains complete legislative authority.
With only 56,081 residents, Greenland is the least populated territory in the world. Out of the total population, most of whom are Inuit, around 18,000 live in Greenland’s capital Nuuk. The rest live in sparse settlements located throughout the island’s enormous coastline.
In recent years, Greenland has been grappling with the adverse effects of climate change as its glaciers have begun to melt at an increasingly fast pace. Although this may seem like a problem that only affects Greenland, these melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels, a problem which could eventually displace millions of people throughout the world as major cities become submerged by water.
- Surface Area: 822,700 sq mi (2,130,800 sq km)
- Country: Denmark (Autonomous Territory)
- Ocean: Atlantic
- Population: 56,081