Encyclopedic Entry

Asia's environment and resources support many thriving economies.

Map by the National Geographic Society

Largest Urban Area
city: Shanghai, China (14,348,535 people)
urban area: Mumbai, India (16,434,386 people)

Highest Elevation
Mount Everest, Nepal: 8,850 meters/29,035 feet

Largest Watershed
Ob River: 2,972,493 square kilometers/1,147,685 square miles

Population Density
131 people per square kilometer

Amount of Renewable Electricity Produced
31% (top producer of renewable energy: Bhutan, 99.9%)

Asia is the largest of the world’s continents, covering approximately 30 percent of the Earth’s land area. It is also the world’s most populous continent, with roughly 60 percent of the total population.

Asia makes up the eastern portion of the Eurasian supercontinent; Europe occupies the western portion. The border between the two continents is debated. However, most geographers define Asia’s western border as an indirect line that follows the Ural Mountains, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Caspian and Black seas. Asia is bordered by the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

The geographic term “Asia” was originally used by ancient Greeks to describe the civilizations east of their empire. Ancient Asian peoples, however, saw themselves as a varied and diverse mix of cultures—not a collective group. Today, the term “Asia” is used as a cultural concept, while subregion classifications describe the distinct geopolitical identities of the continent. These classifications are Western Asia, Central Asia, Southern Asia, Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, and Northern Asia.

Today, Asia is home to the citizens of Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Timor-Leste (East Timor), Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen.

Asia’s physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

Asia’s stake in world markets has grown dramatically in the last half-century. Today, Asian countries rank as some of the top producers of many agricultural, forest, fishing, mining, and industrial products. This increased production has brought both extreme wealth and negative environmental impacts to the continent.

Climate and Agriculture

Asia’s vast area allows for varied and extreme climates. It has some of the coldest, hottest, wettest, and driest places on Earth. While many distinct climates exist across the continent, Asia’s climate can be most generally divided into three zones: north/central, southwest, and southeast.

The continent’s north/central zone is affected by cold and dry Arctic winds, especially the Siberia region of Russia. Hardier grains, such as barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, and wheat, are grown in the central and southern areas of this zone, where permanent frosts inhibit plant growth. Animal husbandry is also very important in this zone. In Mongolia, for example, 75 percent of agricultural land is allocated to the rearing of livestock, such as sheep, goats, and cattle.

The southwest zone is a dry, hot region that stretches from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia through Pakistan, Iran, and into the Arabian Peninsula. This zone has very few areas with enough moisture and precipitation to produce crops. Grains, such as barley and corn, are the principal irrigated crops of some countries. A lack of pastureland suitable for grains, however, means heat-resistant vegetables and fruits are grown most widely in this zone. Dates, figs, apricots, olives, onions, grapes, and cherries are the most important of these fruit and vegetable crops.

The southeast zone is greatly affected by the summer monsoon season. During this season, a low-pressure system south of the Himalayas attracts moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean. The Himalayas push these winds up, causing clouds and precipitation to form at a rapid rate. As a result, many areas of Southeast Asia are considered the wettest places on Earth and can see more than 254 centimeters (100 inches) of rain every year.

The high temperatures and precipitation levels of Southeast Asia are the perfect conditions for the production of rice and tropical fruits. Rice is one of Asia’s most important agricultural commodities and a major food staple of the entire continent. In 2010, Asia harvested almost 570 million metric tons (627 million short tons) of rice, accounting for more than 50 percent of the continent’s total cereal production—and roughly 90 percent of total global rice production. Asia also has the highest rates of rice consumption, averaging more than 79 kilograms (175 pounds) per person annually. As a result, the majority of Asia’s rice stays within the region and international trade rates are fairly low.

Southeast Asia is also a major producer of tropical fruits, such as mango, papaya, and pineapple. India is the world’s largest mango-producing nation, accounting for roughly 40 percent of total global output in 2010. Thailand and the Philippines are the region’s major producers of pineapple.

Forestry and Fishing

Forestry, the management of trees and other vegetation in forests, is an important but threatened industry in a select group of Asian countries. China, Indonesia, and Malaysia make up more than half of the forested lands in Asia. China is a major exporter of wood products, ranking first globally in wood-based panel production, paper, and wood furniture. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are top producers of tropical timbers. These tropical woods, such as teak, are primarily used in high-quality furniture and flooring.

During the past 10 years, Asia has increased its forest cover by 30 million hectares (74 million acres) to create forest plantations where trees can be intensively managed for higher-yield production. The timber industry estimates that Asia will produce roughly 45 percent of wood from forest plantations by 2020. These plantations will become increasingly important as natural forest resources continue to be depleted.

External and internal pressures, however, threaten Asia’s timber industry. Rapidly rising populations have dramatically increased demand for forest products. While more of Asia’s forests have come under environmental protection, lenient legislation and enforcement has allowed illegal logging and timber smuggling to flourish. This is especially true in Southeast Asia, where high-value species are found. As a result, Asian countries have some of the worst deforestation rates in the world.

Asia represents the most important region for fisheries and aquaculture production in the world. Aquaculture is the rearing of fish and other aquatic animals in controlled environments. In 2008, Asia’s marine fishing areas produced roughly 50 percent of the global fish capture. Six of the top 10 world producers of fish are found in Asia: China, Indonesia, Japan, India, Philippines, and Myanmar (Burma). Asia also produced about 90 percent of the world’s aquaculture-raised fish in 2008.

Seafood is extremely important to the lifestyle of many Asian peoples. A recent study by the National Geographic Society places China and Japan as the world’s leading consumers of seafood, at roughly 694 million and 582 million metric tons (765 million and 641 million tons) annually. Emphasizing that each fish species impacts the marine environment differently, the study measured each country’s “seafood print” based on the quantities and types of fish consumed. While Japan eats larger, higher-quality fish, China’s massive population is consuming smaller fish at a much higher rate. This is because China, along with many countries in Southeast Asia, is experiencing a rapid expansion of its middle class population. More people can afford expensive food.

Mining and Drilling

Extractive activities are an important part of the economies of many Asian countries. China, India, Russia, and Indonesia are the continent’s most productive mining economies. These countries extract many of the same minerals.

China is the world’s largest producer of aluminum, gold, tin, and coal. India is also a major producer of aluminum and iron ore, along with other minerals such as barite (used in drilling fluids), chromium (used in steel production and dyes), and manganese (used in steel production). Russia is a major producer of coal, tungsten (used in steel production), diamonds, iron, and steel. Indonesia is a major producer of coal, gold, copper, and tin.

Countries on the Arabian Peninsula have the world’s largest deposits of oil and natural gas. These fossil fuels are drilled for energy and fuel, and make the region one of the most important in the international economy. The oil found throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East is of the highest quality: light sweet crude. Light sweet crude oil is used to make gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuels. It is in constant demand throughout the developed world.

In 2010, Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest manufacturer of petroleum liquids, producing 10.07 million barrels of liquid fuels every day. (An oil barrel is 159 liters, or 42 gallons.) It also has the world’s largest oil reserves, at roughly 250 billion barrels. Saudi Arabia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil exports, which account for 80 to 90 percent of the country’s total revenues. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates accounted for roughly 57 percent of global liquid fuels production in 2010.

Another major player in Asia’s liquid fuels industry is Russia. Russia has oil reserves in Siberia, and massive natural gas reserves throughout the Arctic. Russia is the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and the largest supplier of natural gas to Europe. Russia has not aggressively drilled in the Arctic Ocean, but engineers say the area holds millions of barrels of oil and gas reserves.

The Built Environment

Asia contains some of the most populated and fastest-growing cities of the world. Shanghai, China, and Mumbai, India, are the largest cities in the world. They are also among the most densely populated. Other cities, such as Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Delhi, India, are growing rapidly.

A surge of economic investment, primarily funded by the oil, technology, and pharmaceutical industries, has fueled the development of medium-sized cities into important metropolitan areas. Two urban areas that demonstrate this are Hyderabad, India, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Hyderabad, India, the capital city of the state of Andhra Pradesh, has a population of more than 5 million people. Nicknamed “Cyberabad,” the city has developed into one of the world’s major hubs for information technology, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical production. Hyderabad has aggressively promoted its skilled labor force and cheap investment opportunities. In fact, the city inaugurated a township known as HITEC City in 1998 in order to attract international IT firms. Today, HITEC hosts offices from an array of national and international IT companies, including Oracle Corporation, General Electric, and Microsoft. Microsoft’s largest research and development campus outside the United States is in the HITEC complex.

Hyderabad has also invested extensively in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Biotechnology is the manipulation of living things to produce useful products, such as changing genetic material to create medicines. Much like HITEC City, Hyderabad’s Genome Valley is a large campus of facilities that houses more than 100 biotech companies, including Novartis, Monsanto, and Pfizer. The city has also developed campuses for the study of nanotechnology and the manufacturing of advanced semiconductors and solar technologies. This aggressive investment in high-tech industries will most likely continue to bring revenue and jobs into the city. As a result, Hyderabad must deal with a swelling population in need of more goods and services well into the future.

Dubai is one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). An emirate is a political territory that is ruled by a Muslim monarch called an emir. Dubai’s population has grown rapidly to roughly 1.8 million in 2010 as a result of intense economic growth.

Real estate and construction represent more than 20 percent of the city’s economy. Urban infrastructure has expanded at a rate unparalleled in modern human history. Dubai has the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The Burj Khalifa stands at slightly more than 828 meters (2,700 feet)—almost a kilometer tall. The city’s Persian Gulf coast is the site of the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island shaped like a palm tree. The Palm Jumeirah hosts 4,000 residential lots and has doubled Dubai’s shoreline. The city’s transportation infrastructure is also expanding at a rapid rate. The city’s international airport will soon be the largest airport in the world. The Dubai Metro system is the first urban train network on the Arabian Peninsula.

Dubai’s rapid growth, warm climate, and luxurious lifestyle have attracted many foreigners to the city. Dubai was the 10th most-visited city in the world in 2009. Known as the “shopping capital of the Middle East,” Dubai has more than 70 shopping malls. Dubai has also been referred to as the “Expat Capital of the World” because of the foreign majority that lives in the city. More than 75 percent of the city’s population is male, represented mostly by laborers from countries such as India and the Philippines who have come to work in Dubai’s construction business. The laborers’ poor working and living conditions have come under criticism from the international community, especially in contrast to the city’s image as a luxury capital of the world.

Asia has a number of state-of-the-art engineering marvels that solve complex infrastructural problems. China’s Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydroelectric power station. The dam stands at 185 meters (607 feet) high and stretches for 2,335 meters (7,660 feet) across the Yangtze River. It supplies millions of homes, businesses, hospitals, and schools with safe, affordable electricity.

The massive project, however, has had a devastating effect on the human and natural environment. The damming of the Yangtze River created a reservoir that flooded 632 square kilometers (244 square miles), taking out hundreds of towns and villages and displacing more than 1.2 million people. It submerged hundreds of factories, mines, and waste dumps, allowing industrial pollutants and garbage to enter the reservoir. The reservoir has also threatened the habitats of birds, fish, and other wildlife populations.

The Jamnagar Refinery in Gujarat, India, is the world’s largest oil refinery. An oil refinery is a factory where crude oil is processed and refined into useful products, such as gasoline, kerosene, and diesel oil. Referred to as the “Refining Capital of the World,” Jamnagar has a refining capacity of 1.24 million barrels of oil per day. The factory covers an area larger than the city of London, England.

Japan’s Shinkansen train network is one of the world’s fastest high-speed railway lines. The so-called “bullet trains” can reach speeds of 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour). Shinkansen links most major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. The Tōkaidō line, which connects Tokyo and Osaka, is the world’s busiest high-speed rail line. Since the railway lines were laid in the mid-1960s, it has transported roughly 5 billion people.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome is the world’s first and largest spaceport. The facility opened in the late 1950s, when the steppes of Central Asia were part of the Soviet Union. The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched from Baikonur in 1957, and the first spacecraft to carry a person into orbit (Vostok 1, carrying Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin) was launched in 1961. Today, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is in southern Kazakhstan, although it is leased to and maintained by Russia. The state-of-the-art facility allows for the launch of both manned and unmanned spacecraft, and is vital to the support and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS).

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

ancient

Adjective

very old.

aquaculture

Noun

the art and science of cultivating marine or freshwater life for food and industry.

Arctic

Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic

artificial satellite

Noun

object launched into orbit.

biotechnology

Noun

the use of a living organism for industrial or medical use.

cereal

Noun

type of grain, including wheat.

civilization

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Encyclopedic Entry: civilization

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

construction

Noun

arrangement of different parts.

continent

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: continent

crop

Noun

agricultural produce.

Encyclopedic Entry: crop

culture

Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

deforestation

Noun

destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

deplete

Verb

to use up.

diesel

Noun

oil or other fuel used in diesel engines, emitting a low, constant temperature.

drilling fluid

Noun

chemical liquid used with machinery to make deep holes in the Earth.

electricity

Noun

set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

emirate

Noun

state or territory under the authority of an emir, or Islamic leader.

engineering

Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

environmental impact

Noun

incident or activity's total effect on the surrounding environment.

expat

Noun

(expatriate) a person living outside their native country.

extractive activity

Noun

process that removes, or extracts, any natural or cultural resource from an area.

fishery

Noun

industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.

food staple

Noun

food that is eaten frequently, either fresh or stored for use all year.

Encyclopedic Entry: food staple

forest plantation

Noun

managed area where trees are grown as a crop and harvested for timber.

forestry

Noun

management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.

fossil fuel

Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

genetic

Adjective

having to do with genes, inherited characteristics or heredity.

grain

Noun

harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.

Encyclopedic Entry: grain

habitat

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: habitat

human geography

Noun

the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.

husbandry

Noun

art and science of managing animals.

hydroelectric power

Noun

usable energy generated by moving water converted to electricity.

inaugurate

Verb

to make a formal beginning or start.

industrial

Adjective

having to do with factories or mechanical production.

infrastructure

Noun

structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

inhibit

Verb

to slow or prevent.

irrigate

Verb

to water.

lease

Verb

to rent, or buy for use during a specific time period.

light sweet crude

Noun

most valuable form of petroleum, used for gasoline, kerosene, and high-quality diesel fuel.

livestock

noun, plural noun

animals raised for sale and profit.

low-pressure system

Noun

weather pattern characterized by low air pressure, usually as a result of warming. Low-pressure systems are often associated with storms.

luxury

Noun

expensive item.

marine

Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

market

Noun

central place for the sale of goods.

middle class

Noun

people and culture characterized by incomes between the working class and the wealthy.

mineral

Noun

inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

mining

Noun

process of extracting ore from the Earth.

monarch

Noun

king or queen.

monsoon

Noun

seasonal change in the direction of the prevailing winds of a region. Monsoon usually refers to the winds of the Indian Ocean and South Asia, which often bring heavy rains.

Encyclopedic Entry: monsoon

Muslim

Adjective

having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.

nanotechnology

Noun

development and study of technological function and devices on a scale of individual atoms and molecules.

Encyclopedic Entry: nanotechnology

natural gas

Noun

type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.

Encyclopedic Entry: natural gas

oil

Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

orbit

Noun

path of one object around a more massive object.

ore

Noun

deposit in the Earth of minerals containing valuable metal.

Encyclopedic Entry: ore

pasture

Noun

type of agricultural land used for grazing livestock.

petroleum

Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of ancient organisms. Also called crude oil.

pharmaceutical

Noun

drug.

physical geography

Noun

study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

pollutant

Noun

chemical or other substance that harms a natural resource.

populous

Adjective

containing a large number of inhabitants.

precipitation

Noun

all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation

real estate

Noun

property and the business of buying, selling, and developing land.

reservoir

Noun

natural or man-made lake where water is stored.

Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

revenue

Noun

income, or money earned before production costs are subtracted.

seafood

Noun

fish and shellfish consumed by humans.

semiconductor

Noun

material that conducts electricity, but more slowly than a true conductor.

Siberia

Noun

region of land stretching across Russia from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

smuggle

Verb

to steal or take away in secret.

Soviet Union

Noun

(1922-1991) large northern Eurasian nation that had a communist government. Also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR.

spaceport

Noun

facility for launching vehicles or capsules into space.

steel

Noun

metal made of the elements iron and carbon.

supercontinent

Noun

ancient, giant landmass that split apart to form all the continents we know today.

technology

Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

timber

Noun

wood in an unfinished form, either trees or logs.

transportation

Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

unmanned

Adjective

lacking the physical presence of a person.

vast

Adjective

huge and spread out.

wealth

Noun

amount of money or other valuable materials.

wind

Noun

movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Diane Boudreau
Andrew Turgeon

Illustrator

Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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