The continent of Australia, with the island state of Tasmania, is
approximately equal in area to the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).
Mountain ranges run from north to south along the east coast, reaching their
highest point in Mount Kosciusko (7,308 ft; 2,228 m). The western half of the
continent is occupied by a desert plateau that rises into barren, rolling hills
near the west coast. The Great Barrier Reef, extending about 1,245 mi (2,000
km), lies along the northeast coast. The island of Tasmania (26,178 sq mi;
67,800 sq km) is off the southeast coast.
In land area, Australia is the sixth largest nation after Russia, Canada,
China, the United States of America and Brazil. It has, however, a relatively
small population.Australia is the only nation to govern an entire continent and its outlying
islands. The mainland is the largest island and the smallest, flattest continent
on Earth. It lies between 10° and 39° South latitude.The highest point on the mainland, Mount Kosciuszko, is only 2228 metres.
Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. Its interior has one of
the lowest rainfalls in the world and about three-quarters of the land is arid
or semi-arid. Its fertile areas are well-watered, however, and these are used
very effectively to help feed the world. Sheep and cattle graze in dry country,
but care must be taken with the soil. Some grazing land became desert when the
long cycles that influence rainfall in Australia turned to drought.
Australia is a stable, democratic society with a skilled workforce and a
strong, competitive economy. With a population of 20 million, Australia is the
only nation to govern an entire continent and is the sixth largest country in
the world in land area. Australia's multicultural society includes its
Indigenous peoples and migrants from some 200 countries.
Australia has had one of the most outstanding economies of the world in
recent years. As a high-growth, low-inflation, low interest rate economy, it is
more vibrant than ever before. There is an efficient government sector, a
flexible labour market and a very competitive business sector.
The language skills and other capabilities that attract foreign companies
are, in part, a result of Australia's culturally diverse society. Migrants have
had a marked influence on all aspects of Australian society. In more than 50
years of planned post-war migration, almost six million migrants have arrived in
Australia from over 200 countries, including more than 600 000 refugees, and the
population has increased from about seven million to more than 20 million.
Australia has a remarkable diversity of life forms seen nowhere else in the
world. Australian plants and animals evolved in isolation from other parts of
the world. When the super-continent of Gondwanaland split up about 160 million
years ago, Australia joined Antarctica and drifted towards the South Pole, where
glaciers formed a barrier between it and other land masses.
Today Australian eucalypts account for more than half of all eucalypts found
throughout the world.
The marsupials native to Australia have a different chromosome structure than
mammals in other parts of the world. Typically, they suckle their young in a
pouch.Like the eucalypts, marsupials occupied a wide range of ecological niches in
Australia. The first kangaroo marsupials seem to have appeared about 15 million
years ago. They vary enormously in size and adaptation. A species of tropical
kangaroo lives in trees, but most kangaroos are tough, efficient users of dry
As the world climate warmed and glaciers melted, oceans gradually rose to
their current level and the land bridges to New Guinea and Tasmania were cut.
Corals colonised a flooded coastal plain, forming the Great Barrier Reef of
Queensland.Ancient plants still grow in the wild. Large 'Antarctic' tree ferns are
common in damp, shaded gullies on the south sides of ridges. Cycad palms form an
understorey to tall, silvery spotted gums (eucalypts) along the south-east
coast. Rare relics from earlier geological eras are found in small, special
habitats, such as desert canyons.
The northern third of Australia lies in the tropics and so is warm or hot the
year around. The rest of the country lies south of the tropics and has warm
summers and mild or cool winters.In winter, many parts of the south have occasional frosts. But the Australian
Alps and the interior of Tasmania are the only areas of the country where
temperatures remain below freezing for more than a day or so at a time.
Australia receives most of its moisture as rain. Snow falls only in Tasmania
and the Australian Alps. About a third of the country is desert and receives
less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain a year. The deserts are too barren
even for the grazing of livestock. Much of the rest of Australia has less than
20 inches (51 centimeters) of rainfall annually. Few crops can be grown in these
regions without irrigation. The heaviest rainfall occurs along the north, east,
southeast, and extreme southwest coasts.
The east coast of Queensland is the wettest part of the continent. Some
places along this coast receive as much as 150 inches (381 centimeters) of rain
a year. Parts of the southeast coast and of Tasmania are the only areas of the
continent that receive uniform amounts of rainfall the year around. Rainfall is
seasonal throughout the rest of Australia.
Australia lies south of the equator, and so its seasons are opposite those in
the Northern Hemisphere. The southern part of the continent has four distinct
seasons. Winter, the wettest and coolest season in Australia, lasts from June
through August. Summer, which is the hottest and driest season, lasts from
December through February.
Tropical northern Australia has only two seasons--a wet season and a dry one.
The wet season corresponds with summer and lasts from November through April.
The dry season corresponds with winter and lasts from May through October.