Venture to Earth’s Most Extreme Places Through These Maps

Tallest mountain, deepest crevice, hottest place—determining Earth’s geographic record holders can be tougher than it seems.Monday, 8 April 2019

The incredible variety of landscapes on Earth has kept explorers busy for centuries. Even now that virtually all of the land has been mapped, the most extreme locations on the planet—highest, lowest, hottest, coldest and so on—have historically been difficult to identify. Some are still debated today. All of them remain intriguing and continue to beckon the most intrepid among us. This collection of maps highlights some of those extreme geographical outliers.

The distinction of the highest point on Earth is usually granted to Mount Everest, or Qomolangma as it is known in Tibetan. At 29,029 feet above sea level, it’s an extremely challenging mountain to climb, largely because the air is so thin at that elevation. It wasn’t until around 1856 that Everest’s peak was confirmed as the highest on Earth. For the first half of the 19th century, the honor was believed to belong to another Himalayan peak, Dhualagiri. At 26,795 feet above sea level, that mountain is now recognized as the seventh highest peak.

But even today some would argue that Everest is not the highest point on Earth. It depends on where you measure from: While Everest reaches the highest point above sea level, the peak of Chimborazo, an inactive volcano in Ecuador shown in the illustration below, is farthest from the center of the Earth. The discrepancy arises from the shape of the planet. Earth bulges around the middle giving a boost to equatorial peaks like Chimborazo. Chimborazo’s peak is 3,967 miles from Earth’s center, two miles farther than the top of Everest.

If it’s the tallest mountain you’re looking for, that honor goes to Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, the highest point on the Big Island. This volcanic peak is just 13,803 feet above sea level. But the total height, from the mountain’s base on the ocean floor to its summit, is more than 33,000 feet. Measured this way, Mauna Kea has the entire Himalaya beat, as does Alaska’s Denali. Everest comes in third by this measure because it owes a significant portion of its height to the Tibetan plateau. Everest’s base is somewhere between 13,800 and 17,000 feet above sea level (depending on what you consider to be the base): Everest only rises 15,000 feet or less from that base. Denali, North America’s highest peak, has a base elevation of around 300 to 900 feet above sea level, giving it nearly 20,000 feet of vertical rise.

Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, shown in pink at the northern end of the Big Island on this map, is just 4,207 metres (13,803 feet) above sea level. But measured from its base on the seafloor, its height is around 10,000 metres (33,000 feet), making it the tallest mountain on Earth. This U.S. Geological Survey topographical map shows the lava flows that have erupted from Mauna Kea (light pink) and Mauna Loa (green zones) over the past 800,000 years.
Photograph by Courtesy USGS

On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest point on Earth is in a deep valley in the Pacific Ocean near Guam known as the Mariana Trench. The lowest spot in the trench is in an area known as the Challenger Deep, named after the ship that first sounded it in the 1870s. It was first recorded as 26,850 feet deep, but subsequent measurements have steadily increased that depth over the years. The most recent soundings put the depth at around 35,800 feet below sea level. Compare this to the fact that most commercial airliners cruise at around 35,000 feet above sea level, and you can get an idea of how extreme this depth is. It took director James Cameron two and a half hours to descend to the bottom in a submersible vessel in 2012.

The lowest point on dry land is found on the shores of the Dead Sea, spanning Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, at around 1,400 feet below sea level. But if we’re counting ice-covered land as dry, Antarctica would take the prize, with the valley underneath Byrd Glacier reaching a depth of more than 9,000 feet below sea level.

One record Antarctica holds without a doubt is the coldest temperature ever recorded. Temperature records are notoriously tricky because of differences in the instruments making the measurements, and whether they are recording surface temperature or air temperature. None of that matters on Antarctica—it’s insanely cold no matter how you measure it. The coldest air temperature ever recorded was at Russia’s Vostok Research Station on the eastern side of the continent where it dropped to minus 128.6°F in 1983. In 2010, the Landsat 8 satellite recorded a surface temperature of minus 136°F on an icy ridge.

The challenge with some of Earth’s extremes isn’t getting to them, but surviving them once you’ve arrived. This is certainly true of Death Valley, California, which has experienced the hottest temperatures ever recorded. Just as with cold temperatures, these measurements aren’t without controversy. For many years, an air temperature of 136.4°F recorded in 1922 in El Azizia, Libya, held the world record, but in 2012 the World Meteorological Organization decided the measurement was faulty, leaving a temperature of 134.1°F recorded at Furnace Creek in Death Valley on July 10, 1913 as the hottest. This measurement has also been called into question. Even so, Death Valley does appear to unarguably hold the hottest confirmed ground temperature record: 201°F on July 15, 1972.

Though the locations of many of Earth’s extremes have been settled at this point, the planet will inevitably change some of them. Plate tectonics and volcanic activity may forge new highs, while erosion could create new lows. Though those things happen over thousands and millions of years, climate change could bring some new records during our lifetimes.

Betsy Mason and Greg Miller are authors of the forthcoming illustrated book from National Geographic, All Over the Map. Follow the blog on Twitter and Instagram.

Read More