The Maldives is the smallest country in Asia for both population and area. It is almost 1,190 live coral reef and sand bar islands that make a double chain of 26 atolls. An atoll is an island made from coral that surrounds a lagoon either completely or partially. The word atoll actually originated from the language that is spoken on the Maldives. The Maldives covers over 90,000 square kilometres, which make it one of the most disparate countries in the world. Over 99 per cent of the Maldives is ocean. The geographic coordinates are 3.20 degrees N, 73.22 degrees E.
The Maldives is in the Indian Ocean off the south western coast of India in South Asia. The atolls are the tips of the submarine ridge Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive. The largest individual island is eight kilometres long. There are no rivers on the Maldives, but there are small lakes and marshes.
Each atoll has around five to 10 inhabited islands and from 20 to 60 uninhabited islands. There are also atolls that are a single island with a surrounding coral beach. The terrain is flat, white sandy beaches. The coastline is 644 kilometres.
Near the southern end of the Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive Ridge there are two passages where it is safe to navigate a ship across the Indian Ocean. This open passageway is through territorial waters of the Maldives.
The top soil consists of six inches of humus on top of two feet of sandstone. Below the sandstone is sand that holds fresh water. This is inland where most vegetation grows, but the coconut palm is not restricted by salty or fresh water. It grows almost everywhere.
The coral reefs protect the tiny islands from the action of wind and wave from the ocean.
The Flora Of The Maldives
The vegetation of Maldives is different in the uninhabited and inhabited islands. The inhabited islands have small plantations of banana, citrus trees, drumstick, yams, millet, watermelon, breadfruit trees, papaya and coconut palms. There is about ten per cent of the land that is used for taro, coconuts, bananas and other fruit, and only on the higher island of Fuvammula are pineapples and oranges grown. This is because the island is higher and the ground water is less susceptible to contamination from sea water.
The uninhabited islands mainly have grasses including bamboo and bushes growing on the waterline as well as densely covering the islands that may also have a few coconut trees. The banyan tree is the tallest tree on the islands, and the coconut palm is the Maldives national symbol. With highly alkaline soil and a deficiency in iron, nitrogen and potash, the agriculture possibilities are very limited.
There are small forests of banyan, mangrove and screw pine where cutting trees needs a permit from the government, and two saplings need to be planted for each tree that is cut down. Some of the trees have medicinal properties.
Land animals include fruit bats, flying foxes, rats and lizards. There are also beetles and scorpions as well as colourful, large crabs on the beaches.
The Marine Life
There are five main ecosystems in the Maldives including planktonic organisms and whale sharks. Five species of sponges growing in the reefs have shown to have effective properties for anti-cancer and anti-tumor treatments.
The 187 species of corals that make up the reefs are home to:
• 1100 species of fish
• 21 species of whales and dolphins
• five species of sea turtles
• 400 species of molluscs
• 120 copepod
• 15 amphipod
• 145 species of crab
• 48 species of shrimp
A few of the fish that live in the reefs are:
• Lion Fish
• Reef sharks
• Glass Fish
• Angle Fish
• Butterfly Fish
• Humphead Wrasse
• Spotted Eagle Rays
• Scorpion Fish
• Whale Sharks
• Manta rays
Ground water or rain water is the main source of drinking water for most residents on the atolls. There is a layer of fresh water that floats above the seawater that permeates the coral sands and limestone of the islands. This layer is called the Ghyben/Herzberg lens. Where there are resorts, these lenses are rapidly shrinking.
There are two main seasons for the Maldives, the dry north east monsoon from November to March and the rainy south west monsoon from June to August. The annual rainfall is about 3,810mm in the south and 2,540mm in the north. It is generally very humid, but there are mitigating sea breezes that move the air.
The climate is tropical and it never gets very cold there. The temperatures range from 24 degrees Celsius to 33 degrees Celsius.
The Environmental Issues
Because the Maldives has the lowest sea level of any country, it is one of the first to feel the direct results of climate change, specifically global warming. The sea level has risen eight inches in the last century and is predicted by the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to rise 23 inches by 2100. This will mean that most of the inhabited islands will be completely submerged by the sea and the residents will need to abandon their homes.
Origin of the Maldives
There are two main views on how the Maldives formed. Charles Darwin suggested that as submerged volcanoes rose from the sea, coral reefs grew around the edge. The volcanoes then submerged, leaving the coral reefs surrounding a lagoon. In time, the ocean currents brought dead coral onto the sandbars and plants began to grow.
Another suggestion is given by Hans Hass. He speculates that coral reefs built up on the top of submerged mountains and gradually grew to the surface. The highest and hardest corals were on the edge and they remained when the corals in the centre of the coral platforms broke down. It was to these reefs that the ocean currents brought dead coral and sand to create islands that encircle a lagoon.
Whatever the origin, the Maldives are still forming. One part of an island may erode into the sea while the other side is being built up. There are many islands that are continuing this process at different stages of formation.