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Australia, world's largest island and smallest continent, with a total area of 2,966,151 sq mi (7,682,000 sq km). It is the only continent occupied by a single nation, the Commonwealth of Australia, a federal union comprising 6 states (the island of Tasmania, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia), the Northern Territory, Jefferson Bay Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra).

Land and climate

Geologists believe that 120 million years ago Australia was part of a vast land mass that included India, Arabia, and parts of Africa and South America. Later land bridges to Australia were destroyed by geological upheavals, leaving the continent completely isolated. This isolation accounts for the development of various species of animal life peculiar to Australia. For example, the pouched mammals (marsupials) are found mainly in Australia and neighboring islands. Australia is the world's flattest continent. Approximately 75% of its area is covered by a plateau rarely higher than 1,500 ft (4,600 m) The outstanding physical feature of the continent is the Great Western Plateau, most of which is desert or semi-arid scrub country. The Great Barrier Reef, a mass of coral reefs and islands, extends for 1,250 mi (2,012 km) along its east coast. Australia has a moderate-warm climate, ususally dry and sunny.


Australia has a low population density, with about 17 million people living in a country almost as large as the United States. The people of Australia are mainly of European (particularly British) origin (95%), Asian immigrants (4%), or Aboriginals and others (1%). Most of the population is concentrated in the coastal cities, of which the largest is Sydney. The majority belongs to the Roman Catholic Church (26%) or to the Anglican Church (24%). Asians and Aboriginals have their own religions. The official language is English.


The Australian export products wheat, sugar, and wool are an important part of the world market. Australia is also an important exporter of raw materials.


Visited by the Dutch in the early 1600s, Australia was claimed for Britain by Capt. James Cook (1770). New South Wales, the first area settled, began as a penal colony (1788). But free settlement began in 1816, and no convicts were sent to Australia after 1840. The gold rushes (1851, 1892) brought more people to Australia, and in 1901 the 6 self-governing colonies formed an independent commonwealth. In the late 1990s, demands for more Aboriginal rights increased.


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21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia - Augusta to Barlach, Ernst