Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea, island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It encompasses the eastern half of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island (the western half is made up of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua); the Bismarck Archipelago (New Britain, New Ireland, the Admiralty Islands, and several others); Bougainville and Buka (part of the Solomon Islands chain); and small offshore islands and atolls. The national capital, Port Moresby, is located in southeastern New Guinea on the Coral Sea.

The islands that constitute Papua New Guinea were settled over a period of 40,000 years by the mixture of peoples who are generally referred to as Melanesians. Since the country achieved independence in 1975, one of its principal challenges has been the difficulty of governing many hundreds of diverse, once-isolated local societies as a viable single nation.

Papua New Guinea stretches from just south of the Equator to the Torres Strait, which separates New Guinea from Cape York Peninsula to the south, the northernmost extension of Australia. Mainland Papua New Guinea reaches its maximum north-south expanse of some 510 miles (820 km) along its western border with Indonesian Papua. Almost completely straight, the boundary is formed primarily by the line of longitude 141° E and curves only briefly westward to follow the Fly River for approximately 50 miles (80 km), starting just southwest of Kiunga.

From the western border the land tapers—with a substantial indentation in the south coast formed by the Gulf of Papua—to a fingerlike shape that points southeast toward the D’Entrecasteaux Islands and the Louisiade Archipelago. Off the mainland are a number of small islands and island groups scattered to the north and east and, farther northeast, Bougainville Island and the Bismarck Archipelago; the latter forms a crescent that arcs from the Admiralty Islands in the north to New Britain and Umboi Island, off the mainland’s Huon Peninsula.

Papua New Guinea’s magnificent and varied scenery reflects a generally recent geologic history in which movements of the Earth’s crust resulted in the collision of the northward-moving Australian Plate with the westward-moving Pacific Plate. The low-lying plains of southern New Guinea are geologically part of the Australian Plate. Indeed, New Guinea was separated physically from Australia only some 8,000 years ago by the shallow flooding of the Torres Strait. The southern New Guinea plains, called the Fly-Digul shelf (named for the Fly and Digul rivers), are geologically stable.

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