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Asia is the world’s largest and most diverse continent, taking up the eastern four-fifths of the Eurasian landmass. Its sprawling geography contains a variety of climates and ecosystems, including some of the highest and lowest points on Earth as well as for their extensive coastlines. This array of features creates a hospitable environment, allowing for an extensive variety of vegetation and animals, as well as numerous forms of human adaptation to exist.

The name Asia is an ancient one and the origin of it has been debated for many years. It is thought the Greeks believed it came from the Assyrian word asu, signifying “east”. Another possibility is that its inception originated from a local place-name for the plains of Ephesus, which was then broadened by ancient Greeks and Romans to refer to Anatolia (modern-day Asia Minor), before eventually becoming synonymous with all lands east of the Mediterranean Sea. Later on, when Western explorers set out and discovered South and East Asia, they extended this title to cover the entire continent.

The Turkish city of Anakkale

Asia is located in the Northern and Eastern hemispheres and is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the east, Indian Ocean to the south, Red Sea, Mediterranean and Black Seas in the southwest, Europe to the west and North America to the northeast by way of Bering Strait. The Isthmus of Suez links Asia with Africa and usually serves as a demarcation line between them. Additionally, Anatolia is separated from the Balkan Peninsula by two narrow straits: Bosporus and Dardanelles.

Azov Sea

The border between Asia and Europe is a historical and cultural concept that is determined by convention rather than a tangible marker. Most geo-researchers agree on the most practical geographic boundary which runs from the Arctic Ocean along the Ural Mountains, then down the Emba River to the north side of the Caspian Sea. It continues along the Kuma-Manych Depression to the Sea of Azov, then to its conclusion at the Kerch Strait of the Black Sea. This creates an isthmus between these two seas which culminates in the Caucasus mountain range in southern Asia.

Map of Asia’s bees

Discover Asia

The total area of Asian mainland (including Russian Asian territory and the Caucasus isthmus) is 17,226,200 square miles (44,614,000 square km). This accounts for roughly a third of the Earth’s land mass. The islands in Asia such as Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia and Sakhalin add up to 1,240,000 square miles (3,210,000 square km), equivalent to around 7% of the total. New Guinea is not considered part of Asia. Asia’s most northern point lies at Cape Chelyuskin in north-central Siberia (77°43′ N), its southernmost point at Cape Piai or Bulus on the Malay Peninsula (1°16′ N), to the west it extends out to Cape Baba in Turkey (26°4′ E) and eastwardly until Cape Dezhnev (Dezhnyov) or East Cape (169°40′ W) in northeastern Siberia by the Bering Strait.


Asia boasts the highest average elevation of all continents and the greatest relief overall. It is also home to some of the world’s most extreme locations: Mount Everest, the planet’s tallest peak at a staggering 29,035 feet (8,850 metres); the Dead Sea, which plunges 1,410 feet (430 metres) below sea level; and Lake Baikal in Russia with a depth of 5,315 feet (1,620 metres), making it the deepest continental trough on Earth. All these sites are products of tectonic plate collision. The continent consists mainly of very old blocks of land that once merged millions of years ago; in fact by 160 million years ago they had largely consolidated into one continental mass. A further 50 to 40 million years ago saw India separate from Africa and move northeastward towards Asia until finally colliding with its southern flanks – an ongoing process still continuing today at around 6cm per year. This pressure has generated the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas to their current heights.

Thailand Gulf

Asia boasts a vast 39,000-mile (62,800 km) coastline that varies from high and mountainous to low and alluvial. Uplifting here has created terraced shores; on the other hand, subsidence has caused certain areas to “drown”. Especially in the east and southeast, the particular features are due to active volcanism. To the northeast, thermal abrasion of permafrost is a consequence of both waves pounding and thawing. Areas like the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Thailand have their own accreting sandy beaches. In contrast, further south and southeast exhibit coral growth.

Tibet Autonomous Region, China, Himalayas

The mountain systems of Central Asia have had a considerable impact on the region – not only providing their rivers with water but forming a formidable geographical wall that has altered the movement of people and cultures. This has been especially evident through the traditional migrations from arid areas to India, as well as more modern flows out of China, heading south into Southeast Asia. Despite this, some ethnicities such as Korean and Japanese have managed to remain largely homogeneous.

Asia is the most populous continent in the world, with a population which is not evenly distributed. This is largely due to climatic conditions impacting on agricultural production. Countries such as western Asia, India and the eastern half of China all experience great population concentrations. There are also significant populations located near Pacific borders, but Central and North Asian regions remain relatively unpopulated due to their harsh climates. Despite this, three-fifths of the global population lives in Asia.

Monasteries in Bhutan

Asia is the birthplace of a multitude of world religions, from the major ones—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—to several lesser recognized ones. Of these faiths, Christianity is the exception in its growth outside the continent; while having some presence in Asia, it has had little impact. Buddhism on the other hand has made an immense impact beyond its Indian origins and can be found in various forms across China, South Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Similarly, Islam has extended outwards from Arabia to South and Southeast Asia while Hinduism remains largely localized to India’s subcontinent.

This article serves to provide a broad overview of the physical and human geography of Asia. To take a closer look at its major geographic features, refer to articles on the Pamirs, Gobi and Tigris and Euphrates rivers. To learn about individual countries of the continent, one can find more information in articles on Kazakhstan, Mongolia, India and Thailand. With regard to major cities of the continent, you can read about Bangkok, Jerusalem, Beijing and Seoul in respective articles. For historical and cultural development in Asia, one should look into the articles on Asian countries, regions and cities as well as Palestine history and Islamic world. Additionally, related topics such as religion (Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam) or arts & literature (Chinese literature, Japanese literature Central Asian arts etc.) are covered in different articles.

Narasimhan Chakravarthi – Yefremov, Yury Konstantinovich History of geology

Range of Kailas

Asia is the largest and youngest continent, as well as a complex structure. It began evolving around four billion years ago, and more than half of it is still seismically active with new continental material being produced in its surrounding island arcs. Through these episodic collisions of islands with the mainland, new land is created and added to the continent. Asia contains Earth’s greatest mountain mass, such as the Plateau of Tibet and the Himalayas, Karakoram Range, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Kunlun Mountains and Tien Shan. It also holds the highest and lowest points on dry land, longest coastline and largest area of continental shelf. Its mountain ranges, beaches and plains have greatly impacted human history; moreover it is also an important producer of fossil fuels – petroleum, natural gas and coal – plus contributes significantly to global production of minerals – up to 60% of all tin ore worldwide. Hence its geology helps shape living conditions globally.

Considerations in general

Framework of tectonic movements

Belukha Mountain

The appearance of Asia hides a very intricate geological history predating the current active deformations, forming its landforms. It is advantageous to discuss the tectonic framework of Asia in two maps: one depicting its paleotectonic units (from aged tectonic plates) and the other containing its neotectonic units (new tectonic plates). This is because the units based on current structures differ from those established on inactive processes.

As outlined by the theory of plate tectonics, Earth’s crust is pushed along different courses due to internal forces, thus forming continents and opening or closing oceans. Rifting normally results in an ocean opening, where a continent is separated in two, while closure usually occurs on a subduction zone – an inclined plane that grants for the submerging of an ocean floor beneath a tectonic plate which then gets assimilated into the planet’s mantle. This process ends with two continents colliding and possibly making up what is called a tectonic collage – composed of small continental fragments, island arcs, large accumulations of sediment as well as moments when parts of the ocean floor are included. When creating Asia’s paleotectonic map, such accreted objects and the lines (or sutures) joining them become particularly useful to identify.

Following a crash, convergence may still disrupt the existing tectonic collage along fresh lines and especially through faulting. This postcollisional disruption can also trigger some of the old tectonic lines (sutures). These secondary structures can greatly influence and shape the neotectonic units in Asia. It is worth noting that many prior continental collisions have further brought about various secondary structures that enrich the continent’s structural variety.

Asia’s paleotectonic units are split into two main categories: continental nuclei and orogenic zones. The continental nuclei date back to Precambrian time, ranging from about 4 billion to 541 million years ago, mostly covered by undisturbed sedimentary rocks. These include the Angara (East Siberian), Indian and Arabian platforms, as well as a number of smaller paraplatforms such as the North China (Sino-Korean) and Yangtze paraplatforms, the Kontum block in Southeast Asia, and the North Tarim fragment (also known as Serindia) in western China. Orogenic zones consist of huge tectonic collages forming around the continental nuclei like Altaids, Tethysides (with further division into Cimmerides and Alpides), and the circum-Pacific belt. These zones are still active in terms of tectonic activity – giving rise to earthquakes and volcanoes.

The Precambrian continental nuclei were formed as a result of the same plate tectonic processes that shaped later orogenic zones. However, it is prudent to distinguish them due to three reasons. Firstly, they occupy only around one fourth of the expanse of Asia, and even less – less than 10 percent – of Asia’s area comprises exposed Precambrian rocks, which permit geologists to scrutinize their evolution. Secondly, Precambrian rocks comprise a negligible number of fossils which complicate any effort towards global or regional correlation. Thirdly, throughout most of the Phanerozoic Period (which spans approximately 541 million years), these nuclei have stayed steady and acted as hosts on which the tectonic collages have gathered in the Phanerozoic orogenic zones.

The paleotectonic evolution of Asia concluded 40 to 50 million years ago with the Indian subcontinent merging into Eurasia. The continent’s structure has since been heavily modified by its neotectonic development, leading to the emergence of major units such as Stable Asia, the Arabian and Indian cratons, the Alpide plate boundary zone where Eurasian continental plate meets the former two platforms, and island arcs and marginal basins.

An overview of the chronology

Island of Sakhalin

Basin of Tarim

The oldest rocks in Asia can be found in the continent’s nuclei. Rocks aged over 3 billion years old occur in Precambrian outcrops of the Angaran and Indian platforms, as well as on the North China paraplatform. These primitive island-arc magmatic and scarce sedimentary rocks are tucked between younger basaltic and ultrabasic formations, which make up a unique geological formation known as greenstone belts. The construction of the Angaran platform was completed roughly 1.5 billion years ago. For the Indian platform, however, its formation dragged until around 600 million years ago; it featured waves of heightened activity that were felt between 2.4 and 2.3 billion years ago, precisely two billion years ago, 1.7 to 1.6 billion years ago, and finally between 1.1 billion and 600 million years ago. Concerning the Arabian platform, its present basement was molded by arc and microcontinent accretion which had begun 900 million years back and ended about 600 million years ago; although some accreted microcontinents boasted an age of over 2.5 billion year – it is thought they may have originally belonged to Africa.

In the North China paraplatform, Chinese geologists have determined that a period of island-arc magmatism, in which molten rock formed by the melting of subducted oceanic crust rises and solidifies to form igneous rock, occurred between 3.5 and 3 billion years ago. Subsequently, these arcs coalesced into protonuclei through collisions prior to the end of the Archean Eon at 2.5 billion years ago. Final consolidation of this paraplatform happened approximately 1.7 billion years ago. The Yangtze paraplatform is younger, with its oldest orogenic event at 2.5 billion years old culminating in its stabilization around 800 million years ago. Not much is known about Kontum block; it includes Precambrian metamorphic rocks dated to around 2.3 billion years but its final consolidation did not occur until 500 million years ago in the middle Cambrian Period. The North Tarim fragment was incorporated into younger orogenic belts making up a thin sliver; although it shares similarities with Yangtze paraplatform, many of their sedimentary and structural processes as well as sedimentary successions do not correlate perfectly. This fragment was marked with stability 800 million years ago.

As other parts of Asia underwent consolidation, renewed orogenic deformation began along the present-day south and southeast edges of the Angaran platform. This marked a sustained period of ongoing subduction, which created immense sedimentary piles derived from oceanic plates sinking in subduction zones and resulted in the accumulation of subduction-accretion wedges at the leading edge of overriding plates and the production of magma related to subduction. All this led to a number of collisions, forming what is now known as Altaid Asia (after the Altai Mountains). Orogenic deformation in the Altaids went on for around 750 million years, beginning in the Proterozoic Eon and carrying on through to early Mesozoic Era; some areas like Mongolia and Siberia experienced these movements right up until the Jurassic Period.

The forming of the Altaid college coincided with the late Palaeozoic development of the Pangea supercontinent (from approx. 320 to 250 million years ago). Positioned north of the Paleo-Tethys Ocean (also referred to as Paleo-Tethys Sea), a gigantic triangle shaped ocean, part of the continental material was detached from the southern section and migrated northwards in a circular motion, much like a windshield wiper. Named the Cimmerian continent, it gathered other continental material on its way north, such as that from the Yangtze paraplatform and Kontum block, before eventually arriving and merging with Altaid Asia between 210 and 180 million years ago – thus forming the Cimmeride orogenic belt.

The Cimmerian continent moved northward and the Neo-Tethys ocean was opened. The closing of this body of water occurring 155 million years ago coincided with the major disintegration of Gondwanaland. India and Arabia, two fragments of Gondwanaland, collided with the rest of Asia during the Eocene Epoch and Miocene Epoch respectively. The destruction of the Neo-Tethys formed the Alpides orogenic belts, being one component that created the present Alpine-Himalayan mountain ranges. Together with the Cimmerides, these Tethyan oceans are referred to as Tethysides.

Throughout the Cenozoic Era, the subduction of Pacific Ocean floor and the opening of marginal basins driving much tectonism in South and Southeast Asia, continues today. India and Arabia are responsible for the massive distortion of the southern two-thirds of Asia due to their northward migration at a rate of 6 and 4 cm per year. It resulted in a nearly seamless chain of mountain ranges between Turkey and Myanmar (Burma) which broaden into plateaus in Turkey, Iran, and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Moreover, newly formed mountains such as Caucasus and Tien Shan alongside North Anatolian and Altun (Altyn Tagh) strike-slip faults, combined with rift valley basins like Lake Baikal that bear seismic activity demonstrate the convergence of Arabia & India with Stable Asia where no major active tectonism is observed.

Structure and stratigraphy

Precambrian Period

Range of the Aravallis

The Precambrian era is estimated to have lasted over 4 billion years and makes up the majority of Earth’s geologic history. It is separated into two Eons, the Archean (4-2.5 billion years ago) and Proterozoic (2.5-541 million years ago). In Asia, especially on Angaran and Indian Platforms, North China and Yangtze paraplatforms, as well as smaller fragments in orogenic belts like North Tarim fragment, archean evolution was marked by granodiorite intrusions connected to subduction magmatism and greenstone belt formations that are likely ancient oceanic crust or immature island arcs. India holds mafic-ultramafic associations from 3+ billion years ago with limited sedimentary rocks in what appears to be old greenstone belts having intrusive/tectonic contact with Peninsular gneiss of comparable age in the form of Sargur schist belts. In Angaran platform, more than 3 billion year old gneiss-granulite basement shows transformation from ophiolites (former ocean floors) and basaltic island-arc volcanic rocks to more silicic rocks such as andesites

Around 3 billion years ago, the forming of the earliest continental nuclei began, starting with Fupingian Stage in the North China paraplatform (from 3 to 2.5 billion years ago). Additionally, earlier Dharwar-type greenstone belts were present in south-central India and a few other locations such as the Olekma, Timpton-Dzheltula, Batomga, Cupura and Borsala gneiss-granulite series and the Chara complex of gneisses and greenstones in the Angaran platform. These all coalesced together to form “granitic” island arcs with intervening greenstone sutures which included more immature arc remnants.

Continental nuclei, such as the Angaran platform, mainly formed during the Proterozoic period by uniting smaller Archean units. The basement of the platform was mostly developed between 2.1 and 1.8 billion years ago due to successive collisions along its “second-generation greenstone belts.” It experienced a significant intrusive activity during that time frame. Subsequently, around 1.45 billion years ago, an expansive rifting event divided it from North America and caused the creation of its southern and western borders, together with extended grabens from those edges. Finally, 850 million years ago led to the commencing of orogenic activity along its border, which launched the commencement of Altaids and generated the Baikal mountain belt in its wake.

In India, activity of the Dharwar greenstone belts continued until around 2.3 billion years ago. Moving to the northwest, the Aravalli and Bijawar Groups were deformed by the Satpura orogeny at around 2 billion years ago, with the Bijawar Group containing evidence for an early Proterozoic ice age in Asia: Gangan tillite (lithified glacial sediment), estimated around 1.8 billion years old. The Aravalli orogeny took place between 1.7 – 1.6 billion years ago, followed by a continental collision 950 million years later in Singhbhum. Granitic magmatism was widespread in north-central India until 600 million years ago and continued into Middle Ordovician Period (approx 470 million years) in what would become the Himalayas.

A garden in front of the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, where Mao’s body lies in state in Beijing, China. Near the Forbidden City.

Quiz on the world’s largest, tallest, and smallest

In the Arabian platform, which is the youngest major continental nucleus in Asia, it is hypothesized that a rifting event occurred some time between 1.2 and 950 million years ago, resulting in an ocean basin appearing in the northeast of this area. This event also gave rise to microcontinents with primordial surfaces older than 2 billion years (like Mount Khidāʿ). This was part of the Pan-African episode which affected large parts of Africa and other portions of Gondwanaland that would go on to become this Arabian platform. Between 900 and 650 million years ago, island arcs were formed here due to intraoceanic subduction, which then collided with preexisting microcontinents between 715 and 630 million years ago. Following that amalgamation, intracontinental deformation occurred in the region over a period of 80 million years, leading to the formation of the northwest-southeast Najd fault belt in central Saudi Arabia as well as related north-south extensional structures mainly observable today around the Persian Gulf. These faults shifted right laterally initially for 20 million years but went left-laterally until 570 million years ago; this caused narrow elongate basins where clastic sedimentary rocks like those

The oldest rocks found in the Yangtze paraplatform are located in southwest China’s Yunnan province, where a gneiss-greenstone association can be dated back to between 2.5 and 1.7 billion years old. In the northern area of this block, granites aged around 2.1 billion years have been recorded in the Dabie Mountains. Moving west towards Tibet, granites estimated to be approximately 1 billion years old can be seen along its eastern edge. Lastly, the basement of this paraplatform saw an end to tectonic evolution around 800-650 million years ago, after being subjected to an extensive intermediate to silicic volcanic activity.

Though evidence of an ice age in the earlier Proterozoic is limited, there are indications that at least three such events occurred during the late Proterozoic; this knowledge is based on rocks from North Tarim, Yangtze paraplatform and Kazakhstan, India, and Korea. This allows geologists to construct a tentative correlation between rock layers in Asian continental nuclei. Moreover, evaporites, such as halite, gypsum and anhydrite from 590-530 million years ago in the Arabian platform, Indian Punjab and Angaran platforms have helped to inform the internuclei correlation. It is believed that these nuclei coalesced at the end of Pan-African episode and Angara split off during Early Ordovician (roughly 490 million years ago).

Paleozoic era

In order to understand the tectonic events which occurred in Asia during the Paleozoic Era (541 to 252 million years ago), three main categorizations have been identified: Altaids, Tethysides and continental nuclei. However, due to the large overlapping of temporal limits, it is no longer possible to identify these Asian events with those associated with the Caledonian and Hercynian orogenies in Europe.

Altaids Paleozoic events

In the late Proterozoic and early Mesozoic Era, the Altaids formed around the Angaran platform as a large and complex tectonic collage. As far back as 850 million to 570 million years ago, the Baikalides, the oldest part of the Angaran platform, formed. Along a suture containing ophiolitic remnants of ancient ocean floors, island arcs and microcontinents were accreted onto Angara.

The collisions that occurred in the Baikalian region resulted in the formation of a new oceanic space, which began to be subducted under the extended continental mass during the Ordovician (around 485-444 million years before present). This process led to a considerable amount of accumulation within an accretionary prism, consisting of deep-sea muds, sandstones formed by vast submarine turbid currents, siliceous sedimentary rocks and ophiolites (chunks of oceanic crust). These rocks now form the underlying structures of much of the Altai Mountains. Furthermore, there was much magmatism due to subduction associated with the growth of this accretionary prism. Similarly, another accumulative mass developed in a separate location at sea and became part of the foundations of Kazakhstan following successive deformations and magmatic activity around all through Early Paleozoic.

During the Carboniferous Period, around 320 million years ago, the Kazakhstan continental block merged with the enlarged Angaran nucleus in the Altaid tectonic collage, forming a junction at the southwestern Altai suture which is now buried under the younger Mesozoic deposits of the West Siberian Plain. This connection extended eastward into Mongolia and joined with an encircling circum-Altaid suture zone springing from the Tien Shan. Further integration of the North Tarim fragment into the Altaid collage occurred during this same period. Near 290 million years ago, early in the Permian Period, north-directed subduction along what is now known as Kunlun Mountains ripped open two basins – Junggar and Tarim – similar to today’s Sea of Japan (East Sea).

By colliding with Asia along the Ural Mountains between the Arctic Ocean and the Aral Sea, the Altaid evolution came to an end. The collision occurred during the Carboniferous Period (359 to 299 million years ago) in the south, but later—during the Permian Period (299 to 252 million years ago) in the north, creating Laurasia, a supercontinent. The Altaid evolution was ended by collisions in the south and southeast.

Tethys Paleozoic events

China’s alluvial fan

The northern marginal region of the Tethysides noticed a smooth transition from Altaid to Cimmeride evolution. The Kunlun Mountains in Tibet, part of Cimmerides, are also deemed as the southernmost traces of the previously mentioned Altaid collage. These mountains encompass an enormous subduction-accretion amalgamation and arc-related magmatic stones such as granites, granodiorites and andesites – dated from the early Cambrian to Late Triassic (540 to 200 million years ago). This accumulation appeared next to the southern boundary of North Tarim fragment although later was detached by opening Tarim Basin during Permian era. Westward it expands into Hindu Kush and Pamir ranges in Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan which represents almost all pre-Triassic basement of Turkmenistan. During late Paleozoic period, North China block became a segment of Asia while a largely vanishing ocean between this block and the rest of nuclear Asia combed along Shilka River route in south Siberia was still preserved.

Orogenic deformation, magmatism, and metamorphism in the Carboniferous and Permian periods have been identified in parts of Asia that were then part of Gondwanaland or had recently seceded from it due to the rifting of the Paleo-Tethys Ocean behind the dividing Cimmerian continent. In northern and eastern Turkey, southwestern Iran, and Oman, folding and thrust faulting occurred with granitic and andesitic magmatism as well as high-temperature, low-pressure metamorphism suggesting that a subduction zone under Gondwanaland existed. This subduction zone could have been responsible for the splitting of the Neo-Tethys in the middle Permian into a back-arc basin similar to that of today’s Sea of Japan.

Suggestion: In the Hoh Xil Mountains of northern Tibet and western and peninsular Thailand, late Permian andesitic volcanics and late Paleozoic granites were accompanied by compressional deformation and metamorphism, suggesting a subduction zone along the northern margin of the Cimmerian continent. This suggests that parts of the Cimmerian continent may have been beginning to separate from northern Gondwanaland during the Carboniferous period, as evidenced by the Phuket Group—a thick formation of glacially modified clastic sedimentary rocks—as well as similar formations in Myanmar, Malaysia, and Sumatran Island.

It is thought that the Yangtze paraplatform and the Kontum block were part of Gondwanaland during the early Paleozoic, but they rifted from it during the Devonian Period (about 400 million to 359 million years ago). Huan’an and Dongnanya are two other fragments in southeastern China with basements that have been consolidated mainly in the late Proterozoic and may have rifted from Gondwanaland around the middle Paleozoic.

During the Paleozoic era, at least two island arcs collided with the Kontum block along its northeastern margin, leading to the formation of the Annamia block. The first arc docked in the Devonian or earlier and is now marked by the Annamese Cordillera in northern Vietnam. The later one collided along a suture zone near the Ma River in the early Carboniferous, resulting in considerable south-directed thrusting.

A large amount of arc-related magmatism and mineralization developed along the present-day western margins of the Annamia block during Carboniferous and Permian times. That same magmatic zone extended into the eastern half of the Malay Peninsula during that period. Although late Paleozoic magmatism was much sparser in Huan’an and Dongnanya blocks than in Southeast Asia, subduction was likely also active along the present western margins.

Continental nuclei during the Paleozoic

Three major nuclei experienced tectonic happenings during the Paleozoic period that were apparently unaffiliated with their adjacent orogenic belts. In Saudi Arabia, the Arabian platform was subject to an extension from the late Proterozoic to the middle Cambrian; and this generated large rift basins- running in both north-south (the ‘Arabian-trend’) and northwest-southeast (the ‘Najd-trend’) directions, where clastics and evaporites (hailed from places like Jubaylah and Hormuz) were laid down. Furthermore, these rifts were reactivated multiple times until early Carboniferous period, as well as late Permian. And amazingly, a normal faulting in central Saudi Arabia is believed to have taken place between 460 million through 444 million years ago concurrent with sediment deposition caused by glacial activity in Saharan region (e.g., Raʾan shales containing striated sandstone boulders). Late Permian marked a significant marine transgression which led to submerging more than half of the Arabian platform. The eventual sinking of the platform is related to Neo-Tethys opening along its eastern border and simultaneous global rise

The Indian platform experienced an extended emergence during the Paleozoic Era, with the exception of its northern margin which was later deformed by the Himalayas. Late in the Carboniferous, glacially induced terrestrial sedimentation began in bedrock hollows with the formation of a Talcher tillite. At the beginning of the Permian, numerous east-west and northwest-southeast rift valleys were likely initiated as a result of extensions leading to Neo-Tethys sea opening farther north. Subsequently, these rifts and adjacent areas kept on experiencing terrestrial deposition until early Cretaceous (approx. 145 million years ago), resulting in Gondwanan deposits forming. On the other hand, northward in what would eventually become Himalayas there was consistent marine sedimentation apart from short interruptions connected to global changes in sea level and minor fluctuations of the platform.

The early Cambrian period saw the deposition of evaporites in extensional basins on the Angaran platform, followed by a period of stability during which clastic and carbonate rocks were deposited in shallow marine environments. In the late Devonian, however, the present northeastern margin of this platform was split apart, forming two large rift valleys (the Vilyuy and Chatanga). This tectonic movement was accompanied by extensive basaltic volcanism and sedimentation along a northeast-facing continental margin.

Mesozoic era

Events in Asia during the Mesozoic Era (about 252 to 66 million years ago) can be summarized as follows: Tethys, Altaids, continental nuclei, and orogenic belts circum-Pacific.

Tethysides Mesozoic events

River Jinsha

As the Cimmerian continent moved westward, diminishing the Paleo-Tethys Ocean and expanding the Neo-Tethys behind it, it also began to splinter. This resulted in a northern fraction, incorporating the Farāh block of Afghanistan, the central Pamirs and western Qiangtang block of Tibet; and a southern portion containing the Helmand block in Afghanistan, southern Pamirs and Lhasa block of southern Tibet. The separation was caused by an ocean whose ophiolitic remains can still be seen in eastern Iran’s mountains, along the Farāh River of Afghanistan and stretching from the Tanggula Mountains of Tibet to Mandalay city of Myanmar. It opened up during the Permian period and closed around 125 million years ago in the Cretaceous era.

The Cimmerian continent’s northern fragment, including much of modern-day Iran and the Black Sea region of Turkey, collided with the Altaid collage along a suture zone which passes north of the Elburz Mountains and south of the Kopet-Dag Range in Iran, runs through Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush range, south of the northern Pamirs and Tibet’s Kunlun Mountains, then follows China’s Yangtze River source stream (the Jinsha River) down to western Thailand and beyond into the Malay Peninsula. The collision happened late in the Triassic period (around 220 million years ago) in Iran and Southeast Asia, with a further crash between Iran and peninsular Southeast Asia early in the Jurassic (200 million years ago). This created an immense mountain wall – dubbed ‘Cimmeride’, after ancient tribespeople from around the Black Sea first described it at the start of the 20th century – along Asia’s southern border; stretching from Turkey all through Southeast Asia. During this same collision, western Thailand and Malaysia gained its large tin-bearing granite belt.

The southern part of the Cimmerian continent speedily matched pace with its northern counterpart, and shortly after the Late Jurassic (c. 160 to 145 million years ago) saw a significant chunk of the ocean’s floor, in the form of a massive ophiolite sheet, driven onto the Lhasa block. Subsequently, this caused the southern fragment to collide with Asia, waving goodbye to everyone associated with Paleo-Tethys and its marginal basins. Central Asia during this period is believed to have had a dry climate, likely due to being placed within a rain shadow by the towering Cimmeride Mountains in the south.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer

Asia under the superpowers in 20th-century international relations

During the interval of 230 to 145 million years ago, the Yangtze paraplatform, Huan’an, Dongnanya and Annamia blocks collided with the eastern end of the Cimmerian continent as well as other parts of Asia. This triggered the emergence of multibranched Cimmeride mountain ranges in eastern and southeastern Asia, including the Qin (Tsinling) Mountains which apart North China from South China. Furthermore, there was a great granite province created in southern China due to the collision between the Yangtze and North China paraplatforms that buried some of its metamorphic rocks to depths reaching 100km in Dabie Mountains.

At the end of the Late Triassic (between 230 and 201 million years ago), the Cimmerian continent rifted in the Middle East, allowing Turkey to move away from Africa. Early Jurassic (201 to 175 million years ago) saw the Turkish part of the Cimmerian continent disintegrate and open new Tethyan branches.

The middle Mesozoic saw the fragmentation of Gondwanaland, resulting in the opening of the central and southern Atlantic and Indian oceans. To partially make up for such alteration, the Neo-Tethys began closing. This was also accompanied by the formation of subduction zones on the northern edge of the ocean in Iran and later to be known as the Himalayas. This unified subduction zone would span from northern Turkey to Myanmar, Sumatra, and Borneo during the Early Cretaceous period (145-100 million years ago). Ultimately, much of these changes would bring about Trans-Himalayas and Karakoram mountain ranges as well as andesitic volcanics in northern Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Karakorams, Himalayas regions stretching beyond into Myanmar, Sumatra and Borneo. It is believed that this rapid transition was a result from the prior destruction of the Neo-Tethyan ocean floor.

In the Early Cretaceous, subduction zones were formed just north of the former Gondwanan continental margins in Turkey, Iran and Oman. The Neo-Tethyan ocean floor on top of those margins was then emplaced in the form of giant ophiolite sheets; for example, the Semail Nappe in Oman. These ophiolaite nappes served as substantial sources for chromite deposits. Additionally, a small section of continental crust from northwestern Australia rifted away, eventually impacting with Sumatra in the Late Cretaceous, resulting in the opening of the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean.

Altaids Mesozoic events

The Mesozoic events in the Altaids were largely caused by the Cimmeride collisions further south. These collisions could split the old Altaid edifice, such as in the Turgay Valley of Kazakhstan or the West Siberian Plain. Alternatively, they could uplift underlying basement along thrust faults, such as in Tupqaraghan Peninsula on the east coast of the Caspian Sea or in Kyzylkum Desert of southern Kazakhstan. This compression created basins like Turkmenian basins and accentuated existing structures like Tarim and Junggar. In a few places these structures were connected by strike-slip fault systems, most famously through Fergana Valley in Central Asia. All these features contained significant hydrocarbon reserves within their sedimentary rocks which formed from Jurassic periods and beyond.

Continental nuclei during the Mesozoic

The Angaran platform was not left unscathed by the Cimmeride collisions, though its reaction was significantly more tempered than that of the Altaids. During the transition between the Permian and Triassic periods, vast Tunguska trap basalts erupted, extending into the Triassic period. This event coincided with the disintegration of the West Siberian Plain and basaltic eruptions in the Turgay Valley. Finally, at the end of the Jurassic, compression around its existing Proterozoic rifts indicated that it too felt pushback from the then-ongoing fragmentation of Cimmeria.

The northern Arabian platform was particularly affected by major extension and basaltic volcanism during the Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous. In the Late Cretaceous, another such event created deep shelf basins in the northern and eastern regions of the platform, as part of a broader extensional province in north-central Africa.

During the Mesozoic, the Indian subcontinent divided from Gondwanaland. This took place at its eastern margin roughly 145 million years ago, when India split from Australia. Additionally, the initial event caused a rejuvenation of pre-existing rifts in the area. Some 80 – 90 million years later, a further separation took India away from Madagascar and led to the formation of the Seychelles and Saya de Malha banks in the western Indian Ocean. This event was accompanied by a huge basalt eruption that spanned across 50 distinct flows in approximately 1 million years.

Circum-Pacific orogenic belt events during the Mesozoic

The second half of the Mesozoic Era saw the Pacific floor being largely subducted, which had a considerable impact on the evolution of Asia’s Pacific margin. This action led to the creation of colossal subduction-accretion complexes across Japan and Borneo, as well as the Kolyma block in northeastern Asia interacting with the Angaran platform during the Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous period. Such collision was responsible for producing Verkhoyansk fold-and-thrust belt, spanning an impressive 375 miles (600 km). Subsequently, coal deposits were laid down in molasse basins ahead of it.

Over the Late Jurassic to Late Cretaceous interval, a major magmatic arc flanked Asia between Japan and peninsular Southeast Asia and joined the Neo-Tethyan arc system on Borneo. Many offshore basins along the Chinese continental margin were formed by extensional tectonics from the Late Cretaceous to the Paleogene (80 to 55 million years ago).

During the Cenozoic Era

Cenozoic (i.e., the past 66 million years) is when Asia acquired its present form.

Cenozoic events in the Arabian and Indian cratons and on the Alpide plate boundary zone

Mountains of the Zagros

The most important tectonic event in the Cenozoic history of Asia is its collision with India, occurring roughly 40 to 50 million years ago. This was located some 1,250 miles (2,000 km) south of the present location of the plate boundary along the Indus-Brahmaputra suture behind the main range of the Himalayas. And since then, India has forced its way northward, effectively pushing against and compressing both its own northern margin as well as southern Asia itself. As a result, horizontal shortening has occurred to a degree of about 500 miles (800 km), mainly expressed as several large thrust sheets within the Himalayas. Additionally, this collision also spurred on much crustal thickening in Tibet – now forming one of Earth’s largest concentrations of continental crust at 43 miles (69 km). Furthermore,extensional basins in Tibet appear due to considerable melting within this layer caused by spreading as if it was Silly Putty pushed out by force. Lastly, India continues to move northwards relative to Asia at a rate of approximately 2.4 inches (6 cm) each year; helping sustain the high altitudes of both the Himalayas and Plateau Tibet.

The convergence of India into Eurasia has had a wide-reaching impact, affecting even Lake Baikal to the North. The Cimmeride compressional basins of Tarim, Dzungaria and others have been reinvigorated, as have the Tien Shan mountain ranges in between. The Altun and Karakoram large strike-slip faults have also played a role in redistributing continental material. Further down South the impact has created the Ganges basin south of the Himalayas and possibly led to a shortening of India’s southern tip close to Anai Peak.

Since the middle Miocene Epoch (about 13 million years ago), the Arabian platform has been convergent with Asia at a rate of 1.6 inches (4 cm) per year, elevating both the Zagros Mountains and the entire high-plateau system of Turkey and Iran, which resembles Tibetan plateaus. By indenting the Arabian platform along the North Anatolian Fault, part of eastern Turkey has been pushed out of the way.

The widespread and complicated deformation caused or influenced by the two major Alpide collisions characterizes the Alpide plate boundary zone, the major neotectonic province in Asia. Behind the rain shadow of the Alpide ranges, that province contains the vast salt steppes and deserts of Asia.

Subduction beneath Asia is still occurring in the Tethysides and leading to tectonic movements along the Alpide plate boundary. The eastern Mediterranean Sea close to Asia Minor, the Arabian Sea off the coast of Makran, and the Indian Ocean around Southeast Asia are all being consumed by subduction. Collision between Indonesia’s Banda arc of volcanoes and Australia took place during the Pliocene Epoch (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) and continues to produce magmatic material.

Stable Asia during the Cenozoic

The vast expanses of Siberia north of the Alpide plate boundary zone indicate no active tectonism due to the absence of seismic activity and subdued relief. As an exception, the Gakkel spreading centre propagates into Asia along the Sadko Trough and Chersky Range along the Arctic Ocean.

Events in the island arcs and marginal basins during the Cenozoic

Islands of the Kuril

Subduction along the eastern margin of Asia occurred during the Mesozoic, which resulted in the creation of numerous offshore basins along China’s continental margin. Later, in the Late Cretaceous, this activity relocated further away from the continent. The South China Sea was formed as a result of this process during the Oligocene Epoch (34 to 23 million years ago). At the same time, a mid-oceanic subduction zone materialized above the Kyushu-Palau Ridge and subsequently formed other related basins, such as West Mariana Basin. The East Mariana Basin was created about 5 million years ago behind what is now known as the Mariana Island Arc. Japan drifted away from mainland Asia in Middle Miocene and left behind it the Sea of Japan while a similar situation occurred with Kuril Basin and Kuril Islands Arc.


The Halmaheras

The Cenozoic history of the island arcs and marginal basins in the Pacific has been largely characterized by extensional activity, mainly volcanism from basalt and andesite, limited subduction-accretion, and strike-slip faulting (e.g., the Philippine Fault). Examples of arcs colliding with each other include Sengihe and Halmahera. There have also been instances where multiple islands such as eastern Taiwan and those of the Banda arc have crashed into continents. While some young marginal basins may be starting to form again like the Sea of Japan, a better analogue for understanding the tectonic evolution of East and Southeast Asia is found in the Altaid collage from Paleozoic times.

Celâl Engör, A.M.

The land


Mountain belts

In Asia, mountains and plateaus make up about three-fourths of the continent’s surface area. These mountains can typically be divided into two categories: those on stable platforms (cratons), which tend to have smooth peaks and steep slopes; and those situated in active orogenic zones. The average height of these marginal ranges is 8,200-9,850 feet (2,500-3,000 metres), examples of which include the Western and Eastern Ghats in India, the Hejaz and Yemeni highlands on the Arabian Peninsula, or the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains in the Levant. Towards its eastern side lies the Aldan Plateau as well as the Stanovoy Range along the Angaran (Siberian) platform. Central Siberia is home to isolated uplifted mountains known as Putorans.
Kyrgyzstan, Tien Shan

Orogenic zones are home to mountains which are significantly higher in elevation and of more complex structure. Thanks to tectonic movements, there are borders formed between different mountain types over large parts of Asia from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras (last 250 million years). The biggest mountain range based on the structures belonging to the Mesozoic period (252-66 million years ago) stretches along the Chukchi Peninsula of eastern Asia, Kolyma Upland, Dzhugdzhur and Stanovoy ranges, Sayan, Altai Mountains as well as Tien Shan and Gissar-Alay ranges. The Chersky and Verkhoyansk ranges constitute its western rim.

Cordillera Annamese

The Da Hinggan, Taihang, and Daxue mountain chains stretch across the edges of Central Asia’s plateaus. The Xiao Hinggan and Bureya ranges define the Zeya-Bureya Depression. Further north, the Manchurian-Korean and Sikhote-Alin mountains enclose the plains around the Amur and Sungari rivers, Lake Khanka lowland, and Northeast Plain. The annamese Cordillera in the south joins with China’s coastal mountains to form a branch that begins from Pamirs region and continues east through Kunlun, Qilian, and Qin (Tsinling) mountain ranges.

Armenia’s Mount Aragats

The Alpine-Himalayan mountain belt spans a vast area, running from the west in a westerly direction all the way to far off Malay Archipelago islands in the east. Along much of its length it is comprised of two chains which merge together at denser knots like the Armenian Highland, the Pamirs and south eastern Tibet. The average elevation of these highlands and margins increases as one progresses from west to east, rising from around 800 to 900 metres at Anatolian Plateau, up to 4,000 – 5,000 metres on Tibet’s Plateau and from 2,500 – 3,500 metres over Pontic and Taurus Mountains reaching an apex of 5,800 metres at Himalaya’s peak.

In northeastern and eastern Asia, stretching from the Koryak Mountains in Kamchatka-Koryak arc to the Sunda Islands of Indonesia, is a zone of vigorous folding stemming from the Cenozoic Era, which began 66 million years ago. Along its boundaries lays a string of islands that encircles much of the western Pacific Ocean, forming a Ring of Fire notorious for its volcanic and seismic events.

Plains and lowlands

West Siberian Plain, birch trees and conifers

Most parts of Asia are occupied by low plains, with level surfaces and extensive valleys that serve as the paths for the major rivers. These lowlands are predominantly situated in maritime regions such as the North Siberian, Yana-Indigirka, and North China Plains. In addition, they can also be found in piedmont depressions like Mesopotamia, Indo-Gangetic, and mainland Southeast Asia. Large scale alterations in their topography have been made due to the construction of canals, dams, and levees. To the south of this zone are tablelands and plateaus like Deccan and Syrian-Arabian Plateau with smooth or slightly hilly surfaces along with intermontane basins such as Kashgaria and Fergana at elevations ranging from 2,600 to 4,900 feet. Even higher altitudes can be seen in Tibet Autonomous Region of China (), Tien Shan, Pamirs (the highest being 12,000 feet).


Pinatubo Mountain

A substantial amount of the islands in Asia are hilly, with Sri Lanka having its highest peak measuring 8,281 feet (2,524 metres), Malaysia hosting Mount Kinabalu at 13,455 feet (4,101 metres), Japan’s Honshu featuring the 12,388 foot tall Mount Fuji (3,776 metres), and a large number of volcanoes on Sumatra, Java and Mindanao plateauing at 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Additionally, there are active volcanoes that form part of the Ring of Fire; Rakata Island in Indonesia houses Krakatoa , Luzon in the Philippines contains Mount Pinatubo and Kyushu in Japan is home to Mount Aso.

Influences of geology and climate

The contemporary relief of Asia was primarily shaped by (1) ancient processes of planation (leveling), (2) larger vertical movements of the surface during the Cenozoic Era, and (3) severe erosive dissection of the edges of the uplifted highlands along with the accumulation of alluvium in low-lying troughs, which either settled downward or were uplifted more slowly than the adjacent heights.

Mountains of Sayan

The interior of the uplifted highlands and the related plateaus and tablelands of peninsular India, Arabia, Syria and eastern Siberia are mostly lowly-elevated but made of resilient rock, maintaining their original peneplaned (flat) surfaces. Showcasing particularly outstanding uplifting is Central Asia, with mountain ranges in Tibet, the Pamirs and the Himalayas reaching up to 13,000 feet (4,000 metres). Along the east side of those highlands was a subsidence stretching as far down as 2,300 feet (700 metres). Deep fractures resulting in great upheaval – such as Kopet-Dag and encompassment of Fergana Valley – together with folding over a wide area – like in Tien Shan or Gissar plus Alay ranges – have had a significant impact.

As a result of erosion, many ancient plateaus became mountainous. There were majestic gorges carved into the western Pamirs and southeastern Tibet; the Himalayas, the Kunlun and Sayan mountains, the Stanovoy and Chersky ranges, and the marginal ranges of the West Asian highlands were deeply cut by the rivers, creating deep gorges and canyons that were superimposed.

Plateau Loess

Large swathes of Central, Eastern and Middle Asia experience loess deposits, especially in the Huang He basin. There can be depths as deep as 1,000 feet (300 metres) in parts of Loess Plateau in China. Elsewhere, badlands sculpted by wind and karst topography (containing limestone terrain with vertical and subsurface drainage patterns) are ubiquitous, for example the Kopet-Dag, the eastern Pamirs, the Tien Shan Mountains, the Gissar and Alay ranges, the Ustyurt Plateau, the western Taurus Mountains and the Levant region. In South China, tropical karst is renowned for its breathtaking residual hills.

China’s Pamirs and Silk Road

During the Pleistocene Epoch (2,600,000 to 11,700 years ago), most of northwestern Asia was subject to glaciation up to the 60° N line. East of the Khatanga River, whose course runs from Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, only isolated patches of this mantle debris and mountain glaciers were found due to an extremely dry climate in northeastern Asia at that time. The higher mountains were predominantly affected by glacier activity and evidence shows a few occasions when they advanced between warmer interglacial epochs. This glacial effect is still seen today in many regions and Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. Renowned for their vast glaciers are the Karakoram Range, the Pamirs, Tien Shan, Himalayas and eastern Hindu Kush. However, most have been retreating in recent years as the average snowline remains between 14,800 – 16,400 feet (4,500 – 5,000 metres), going up as high as 21,000 feet (6,400 metres) in central Tibet.

In northern Asia, there is a considerable amount of permafrost—4,25 million square miles (11 million square kilometers)—which extends to lower latitudes than anywhere else. The aridity prevents much snowfall, resulting in deep freezing of the soil. The depth of permafrost in northern and eastern Siberia exceeds 1,000 to 1,300 feet.

Volcanism has created vast lava plateaus and young volcanic cones across Asia. Ancient magma exposures, revealed through erosion, are found on the stepped plateaus of India and Siberia. Nevertheless, notable areas of youthful volcanism can be observed in unsteady arcs of East Asian isles along with Kamchatka Peninsula, the Philippines, and the Sunda Islands. The continent’s highest active volcano – Klyuchevskaya – stands at a staggering 15,584 feet (4,750 metres) in Kamchatka.

The West Asian highlands, the Caucasus, Mongolia, the Manchurian-Korean mountains, and the Syrian-Arabian Plateau are also known for geologically recent volcanism. Also in history, eruptions occurred in the Xiao Hinggan Range and Anyuy highlands of the continent.

Asia’s regions

The physiographic regions of Asia and New Guinea

It is a widespread practice in geographic literature to categorize Asia into comprehensive regions, each including various nations. These physiographic divisions are more often than not comprised of North Asia, which occupies Siberia’s majority and the eastern parts of the continent; East Asia, housing the continental section of Russian Far East region of Siberia, East Asian islands, Korea and northeast and east China; Central Asia, comprising Tibet Plateau, Junggar and Tarim basins, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China, Gobi Desert and Sino-Tibetan mountain ranges; Middle Asia, incorporating Turan Plain, Pamirs Mountains, Gissar and Alay chains as well as Tien Shan Range; South Asia – encompassing Philippine and Malay island groups, Indian subcontinent and Himalayas as well as Southeast Peninsula; West (or Southwest) Asia – included Anatolia Highlands, Armenia Plateaus and Iran High Plains in addition to Levant Lowland and Arabian Peninsula. Occasionally Philippines Islands with Malay Archipelago plus Southeast Peninsula are isolated from South Asia to constitute Southeast Region. Furthermore another variation of basic classes is sometimes made to split up Asia into its cultural domains.


Steppes of Kulunda

Northeastern Siberia contains moderate height mountains that were influenced by foldings and faultings, such as the Verkhoyansk, Chersky, and Okhotsk-Chaun arcs – all of which are Mesozoic in their origins, but have had their appearance changed due to recent tectonic movements. The Koryak Mountains were also made during the Cenozoic era, with some volcanic activity recorded in this time. Plateaus located near ancient massifs can also be spotted here; for example, those related to the Kolyma Mountain Range. Traces of former glacier centers and sea levels can also be seen in places like the New Siberian Islands. As well as these, clear signs of an old peneplain rest on the platform beneath some areas like Prilenskoye and Aldan – while ancient glaciations leave their mark on the region.

The Central Siberian Plateau dominates north-central Siberia, consisting of a series of plateaus and stratified plains formed in the Cenozoic. These include terrace-like mesas with visible horizontal volcanic intrusions, plains derived from uplifted Precambrian blocks, and the Putoran Mountains – an elevated but eroded mesa that is partially covered by traprock. The eastern fringe of this region is the Central Yakut Lowland which drains into the Lena River. On its northern border lies the North Siberian Lowland, blanketed with former marine deposits.

The West Siberian Plain is stratified and consists of Cenozoic sediments deposited over thicknesses of Mesozoic material, as well as folded bedrock. The northern part was subjected to several periods of glaciation throughout the Quaternary Period (the past 2.6 million years). In the southern part, glaciofluvial and fluvial deposits prevail.

In the northern part of the region are the mountains and islands of the Asian Arctic. The archipelago of Severnaya Zemlya is formed by fragments of fractured Paleozoic folded structures.


Range of Akaishi

The northern region of East Asia is composed of various features, including the Da Hinggan, Xiao Hinggan, and Bureya mountain ranges; the Zeya-Bureya Depression and Sikhote-Alin ranges; the Amur and Sungari rivers’ lowlands and Lake Khanka; the Manchurian-Korean highlands that run alongside North Korea’s border with China; the mountainous stretch along Eastern Korea; the Northeast (Manchurian) Plain; the Liao River basin’s lowlands, as well as the North China Plain. All these were formed by processes such as folding, faulting, or zonal subsidence. Regions where recent subsidence has taken place are separated by alluvial low lands.

During the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, folding and faulting occurred in southeastern China to form the mountains that cover southeastern China from the Yangtze paraplatform. The mountain ranges are numerous, are of low or moderate elevation, and occupy most of the surface area, leaving only small, irregularly shaped plains.


The Ryukyu Islands, Japan, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands are related formations stemming from intense geological activities during the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. They form part of three mountain-island arcs: the Ryukyu-Korean arc, Honshu-Sakhalin arc and Kuril-Kamchatka arc. The arcs join together at complex knots expressed by the topography of islands such as Kyushu and Hokkaido. Most mountains in these areas are of low or moderate height and consist of folded blocks, interspersed with some volcanic mountains and alluvial lowlands.

There are parallel ranges of the Kamchatka-Koryak and Kuril-Kamchatka arcs that make up Kamchatka. Geologically young folds enclose rigid ancient structures. The peninsula has many geysers and hot springs, as well as extensive cenozoic (including contemporary) volcanism. Alluviums and volcanic ashes make up vast plains.

South Siberia and Central Asia

River Tarim

Central Asia is a region comprising of mountainous, plateau and tableland topography, forged from remnants of the original landmasses that surrounded it in the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic eras. The mountains in southern Siberia and Mongolia have been shaped by rejuvenated uplifts of older faulted and folded blocks; these ranges are divided by depressions between them. The mountains known as the Altai, Sayan, and Stanovoy Mountains also stand out prominently; they exhibit characteristics derived from ancient glaciation with modern glaciers still being present in the Altai range.

The Central Asian plains and tablelands include the Junggar Basin, the Takla Makan Desert, the Gobi, and the Ordos Desert. A wide range of relief features can be found in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic, including plateaus with low mountains, eroded plateaus with loess, and vast sandy deserts covered with wind-borne alluvium and lacustrine deposits.

Range of Pangong

Alpine Asia, sometimes referred to as High Asia, is an area comprising of the Pamirs, eastern Hindu Kush, Kunlun Mountains, Tien Shan, Gissar and Alay ranges, Tibetan Plateau and Karakoram Range. These regions are known for their sharply uplifted mountains that are dissected into ridges and gorges in the western side. Further, these alpine landscapes have been formed from folded structures of Paleozoic age making them prominent amongst others. Glaciers can be seen in many parts of this region but are concentrated around the western end of Himalayas and in Karakoram Range.

The Plateau of Tibet is a fractured alpine area that has been uplifted more recently. Sandy and rocky deserts cover some of the highlands, while other places boast alpine highlands with glaciers or are weathered by erosion. The Karakoram Range and the Himalayas were raised during the late Cenozoic era, which also unearthed older rocks deformed in prior tectonic processes.


River Indus

South Asia, in the strictest sense of the term, encompasses the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the peninsular region of India and Sri Lanka. This Plain is a combined basin of the Indus, Ganges (Ganga) and Brahmaputra rivers which is bordered by the main Himalayan range to its north. It was formed after accumulations of marine sediments and several other continental deposits passed down from these mountains and settled into a deep depression. These materials have enriched soil in the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins while edging out parts of the Indus basin into sandy deserts. The peninsular India and Sri Lanka are comprised of various platforms including plateaus, tablelands (like Deccan plateau) as well as uplifted margins like Western Ghats & Eastern Ghats where one can find lava intrusions or mantles.


Coral reefs in Thailand

Southeast Asia is comprised of peninsular Southeast Asia and the islands and peninsulas situated to the south-east of the Asian mainland. Myanmar (Burma) is home to a Cenozoic age fold belt on its western mountain area. The mountains gradually lower in size and elevation, with alluvial valleys spreading out further south. Central and eastern Thailand and central and southern Vietnam are decorated by low to moderate height mountains that have been moderately fractured, an example of Mesozoic structures that encircle the ancient Kontum block composed of plateaus and lowlands filled with accumulated alluvial sediments.

Asia’s southern margin is bordered by archipelagoes whose islands are surrounded by deep oceanic trenches. Sumatra, Java, and the Lesser Sunda Islands are composed of fragments of Alpine folds that form a complex assemblage of rocks of different ages in the Indian Ocean arcs. During the Cenozoic, vigorous volcanic activity created volcanic mountains, which have steadily eroded into the adjacent alluvial lowlands.

It is formed by a fractured continental land at the junction of the Alpine-Himalayan and East Asian downwarp regions. The mountains are folded and faulted, and the lowlands are alluvial.

The Pacific Ocean island arcs, including Celebes (Sulawesi), the Moluccas (Maluku), the Philippine Islands, and Taiwan, have been built by ongoing tectonic processes, particularly volcanism. In those regions, there are moderately high mountains, volcanic ranges, alluvial lowlands, and coral reef islets.

Asia Middle East

Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash

Nestled between the Caspian Sea to the west and Lake Balkhash to the east, Middle Asia is primarily composed of flat plains across continental platforms constructed from ancient Paleozoic and Mesozoic bedrock. Intermittently, there are uplifted portions forming low, rounded hills in the region of Kazakhstan. On the Tupqaraghan and Türkmenbashy (Krasnovodsk) peninsulas of the Caspian Sea, you will find mountains flanking mesas with level summits and steeply sloping sides, a testament to sedimentary accumulation in areas such as the Ustyurt Plateau and Karakum Desert. The south is also defined by sandy deserts shaped by wind-blown alluvium. Lastly, original marine and lacustrine sediments are right next to the coasts of the Caspian Sea, Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash.


Anatolia, the Caucasus, Armenia, and Iran are included in West Asia.

National Park of Prielbrusye in the Caucasus

The Anatolia highlands, such as the Pontic Mountains near the Black Sea, the Taurus and Anatolian tablelands, are highly fragmented, facing significant erosion and occasional volcanic activity. The Greater Caucasus Mountains are huge ranges that run northwest to southeast between the Black and Caspian seas. Additionally, the Armenian Highland encompasses disrupted mountain chains like the Lesser Caucasus and Kurt mountains which were formed from a knot of arcs due to Cenozoic volcanism. The area is seismically unstable and has caused numerous damaging earthquakes throughout history.

The Iranian highlands contain numerous mountain arcs such as the Elburz, the Kopet-Dag, the mountains of Khorāsān, the Safīd Range and the western Hindu Kush in the north, and the Zagros, Makrān, Soleymān and Kīrthar mountains in the south. In addition to these features, this area also boasts plateaus of its interior regions as well as central Iranian, eastern Iranian and central Afghanistan mountains. Isolated volcanoes from Cenozoic era are present here too along with accumulations from ancient erosion. Depressions and tablelands hold saline and sandy deserts whilst stony deserts (hammadas) dominate higher ground.

Asia’s southwest

Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia are the principal components of southwest Asia, which is made up of the northern fragments of Gondwanaland.

Desert in Abu Dhabi

There are stratified plains on the Arabian Peninsula that have been eroded under arid conditions on a tilted platform, highest along the Red Sea. There are plateaus with uplifted margins, Cenozoic lava plateaus, stratified plains, and cuestas (long, low ridges with steep faces on one side and gentle slopes on the other). Due to previous subsidence and sedimentation, vast sandy deserts have been created from ancient marine sands and alluvium.

River Tigris

From Baghdad to the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia is divided into floodplains along the Tigris and Euphrates and deltas. Under continental conditions prevailing in the late Cenozoic, erosion and denudation have dissected the original lowland, which is covered with late Cenozoic sedimentation.

The drainage system

The rivers

Asia is a land of great rivers. The Ob, Irtysh, Yenisey with the Angara, Lena (with the waters of the Aldan and the Vilyuy), Yana, Indigirka, and Kolyma all flow northward into the Arctic Ocean. Anadyr, Amur (combined with the Sungari and Ussuri rivers), Huang He (Yellow River), Yangtze (Chang), Xi, Red, Mekong, and Chao Phraya are some of the rivers that drain into the Pacific Ocean.

Rivers such as the Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges (Ganga), Godavari, Krishna and Indus rivers flow into the Indian Ocean, while the Shatt al-Arab is formed by the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Kura and Aras rivers enter into the Caspian Sea. In contrast, only small mountain streams from Asia enter into the Sea of Azov, Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea. Flowing through Central Asia are numerous rivers – namely the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus River), Syr Darya (ancient Jaxartes River), Ili (Yili), Tarim, Helmand, Harīrūd (Tejen) – that eventually empty out in to interior basins. While some of these rivers come to an end at lakes or form deltas within sandy or saline marshes; other winds their way through oases but lack enough water to irrigate fields as it evaporates instantly.

River Yenisey

Siberian rivers freeze over in the winter, and some freeze to the bottom. During spring, widespread flooding occurs as the snow fields melt. Watercraft use those rivers in the summer as well as roads for sleighs and snowmobiles in the winter, and they teem with fish during the summer.

In areas where drainage is blocked, many rivers are largely fed by melting snow and glaciers in the mountains. These flow more strongly during summer months but dwindle in dry areas without mountain runoff. Rivers in the monsoon climate regions reach their highest levels during summer and are used for irrigation, while those near the Mediterranean decrease and may even evaporate. In contrast, tropical rivers remain full of water throughout the year.

Asia’s lakes

Sea of Dead

Asia’s many lakes are highly varied in terms of size and origin. The Caspian and Aral seas are the biggest, both remnants of former large waterbodies; the former has been known to change size, while the latter is shrinking due to its tributaries, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, being tapped for irrigation. The basins of Lakes Van, Sevan, and Urmia have been surrounded by lava while Lake Telets was created by ancient glaciation. Additionally, a number of lakes have been caused by landslides (e.g. Lake Sarez in the Pamirs), karstic processes (the ones in west Taurus) or lava dams (like Lake Jingpo in China). Lastly, some were formed inside craters or calderas in volcanic regions around eastern Asian islands, Philippines and Malay Archipelago. The subarctic also boats an abundance of lakes; this includes those resulting from glacier melting as well as moraine lakes from glacial periods past. Low coastlines often feature lagoonal lakes too.

Baikal Lake

The prevalent salinity in internal drainage basins, like Koko Nor and Lake Tuz, is a common feature. Lake Balkhash has fresh water on the western side and saline water on the eastern. Further, freshwater lakes which have rivers flowing through them control the volume of rivers connected to them; some famous ones are Lake Baikal linked to Angara River; Lake Khanka with Song’acha and Ussuri rivers; Dongting Lake and Lake Poyang associated with Yangtze River, while Tonle Sap is related to Mekong. Additionally, hydroelectric power plants have produced large reservoirs.

The groundwater

It is often only groundwater (subterranean water) that is available in arid regions. Artesian basins and beneath the dipping plains at the foot of mountains are known to contain large accumulations; these basins are associated with extensive oases in Central Asia, Kashgaria, and elsewhere.

The soil

Groups of Asian soils

A combination of factors contributes to the soils of Asia, including climate, topography, hydrology, plant and animal life, age, and economic activity. Those factors vary greatly across that vast continent, from north to south, and from mountainous regions to lower elevations. Across the continental plains, the soil also exhibits a horizontal zonality that is particularly evident.

Zones in the Arctic

Tundra in Siberia

In the Arctic and Subarctic, glacial and Arctic deserts are predominantly inhabited. Consequently, there is very limited soil building and only skeletal soils with low humus levels. The climate of the Subarctic results in tundra vegetation, which gives rise to particular tundra-type soils that suffer from poor drainage due to permafrost, as well as having a shorter period for organic substances to decompose. This leads to an accumulation of undecomposed organic material in peaty form. Moreover, without oxygen content the gley substance is formed, consequently creating peaty-gley soils typically associated with the tundra. Furthermore, solifluction (or mudflows) occur frequently as well as ground heaving from frosting, settling or caving through thawing and stone rings around debris covered areas where boulders are present.

Tundra forest

Further south stretches the transitional belt of the forest tundra, where tundra and sparse forest alternate regularly. Under the frozen taiga (boreal forest), cryogenic soils (influenced by frost action) alternate with tundra soils. In the mountainous regions, the peaty-gley soils are replaced by mountain tundra and weakly developed, often embryonic soils of detritus and stones fragments.

Zones of forest

Taiga landscape in Siberia

The forest zone occupies the most area of the temperate zone. The soils here are created by a leaching process, during which leaves and needles from the trees and other organic matter decomposes, resulting in soluble soil components being transported into deeper horizons. This creates an upper layer with light grey “ashes”, known as podzols, which have a strong iron presence due to its hold-down beneath them. East of the Yenisey River, the permafrost makes drainage difficult so the typical podzols are replaced by specific cryogenic taiga soils. Spread across this region is also an abundance of marshes and bog-type soils.

The deciduous forest subzones of Asia are comprised of two distinct areas. Western Siberia has forests of small-leafed trees such as birch or aspen growing in gray forest soils. The organic substances present in the soils, such as tree leaves and abundant grass cover, contribute to higher humus content and thus a greater fertility. In East Asia, from the Xiao Hinggan Range in the west to Honshu Island in the east, warmer temperatures and increased moisture levels cause chemical weathering which adds iron oxides to surface soil horizons; this results in brown forest soils known as forest burozems.

Forest-steppe and steppe

Russia, Orenburg

When the ratio of precipitation to evaporation is in equilibrium, soil cover in the forest-steppe region forms. As a result of its dense vegetation, organic material is abundant and there is thus ample humus accumulation, creating dark-coloured chernozems that are some of the most fertile soils in Asia. The Amur prairies have meadow soils consisting of dark, moist blue gleys, where vegetation is sparse. This leads to a reduced amount of humus and an increase in mineral salts; furthermore, a bleaching and salinization of the soil takes place due to the upward flow of soil solutions transporting dissolved salts to the surface. These drier steppes form a transitional area between the southern chernozems and chestnut soils. Great swaths of this region are used for farming and are plentiful producers of grain while wind erosion during dry seasons causes damage despite preventative efforts, as does surface washout which results in gully erosion further impoverishing the earth.

Deserts and semideserts

The Mongolian People

Stretching from inner Kazakhstan to Mongolia is a zone of semi-desert, and also in Middle Asia there is a band of temperate deserts, such as the Junggar (Dzungarian) Basin, the Takla Makan Desert and Inner Mongolia. Plus beneath the semi-deserts lies a mosaic of desert vegetation, with light chestnut soils that have low humus but plenty of strongly alkaline soil. Additionally, beneath deserts where organic material and humus are at an absolute minimum grey-brown soils form in the temperate zone whereas in the hot subtropics grey desert soils (sierozems) grow. Farming is only possible here with irrigation due to a high amount of saline soil which consequently yields cultivated versions of sierozems.

In western Asia, the tropical desert zone is clearly defined by embryonic soils, desert crusts, and blowing sands.

A Mediterranean region in Asia

Vegetation types prevalent in the maritime areas of Anatolia and the Levant, such as maquis (evergreen) and shiblyak (deciduous), are adapted to survive with minimal water. Frigana vegetation, which is low-growing and thorny, is also common in these regions, as well as other semidesert highlands. The soil here is typically brown due to the intense chemical weathering that occurs during winter rains and the upward flow of solution during dry summer months, but may also be considered transitional between brown soils and sierozems.

Monsoon regions in the subtropics

Farmland in South Korea

Typical of Asia’s monsoonal subtropics are soils that once lay underneath the evergreen forests located in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, southwestern Japan, and southeastern China. The warm and humid summer monsoon season leads to intensive weathering of the components of these soils, similar to what happens in the more southerly torrid zones. This results in decomposition and leaching of many minerals, as well as a buildup of iron and aluminum oxides – resulting in predominance of red and yellow soils, together with podzolized soils. Paddy-rice cultivation is particularly widespread on alluvial plains, as well as on irrigated terraced slopes in hilly regions.

Subequatorial and equatorial regions

Tropical forest soils in Asia

The leeward slopes of hills are predominantly home to savannas (grassy parklands) and dry-tropical deciduous forests, while wet-tropical evergreen forests grow on the windward side that receives more rain. Intensive leaching and evaporation leave soils with yellow-red laterites underneath the tropical forests, changing to red brown and desert brown soils as aridity increases in the savannas. The unique black regur soils found under peninsular India’s dry savannas are believed to originate from basalt rock.

Typical tropical rainforests have developed in the equatorial zone (southern Malaysia and the Greater Sunda Islands). In southwestern Sri Lanka and on the island of Java, they have almost entirely been replaced by an agricultural landscape in which mountain slopes and hills are covered with plantations of tea, coconut palms, and rubber trees. Laterite soils are red-yellow or brick-red with some degrees of laterization.

It is common for alluvial soils to be found in the valleys of the subequatorial and equatorial zones because rice fields have been cultivated and irrigated for thousands of years. Mountainous regions practice artificially terracing of slopes to prevent soil erosion as well as to increase irrigation capacity.


Georgia’s Aragvi River

As elevation increases, vertical soil zones are correlated with various landscapes. In western maritime regions, a zone of forest is followed by meadows and then pastures that are covered in snow in the highest altitudes. The lower slopes of the western Caucasus provide an example, with broad-leaved mountain forests growing on brown mountain-forest soils; coniferous forests with mountain podzolic soils occur higher up, then stunted trees, followed by subalpine and alpine meadows on mountain-meadow soils; finally the highest ridges are clothed in perpetual snow and glaciers. Similar patterns of desert, steppe, meadowland, and snow zones can be found across interior Asia; these often include mountain-forest zones. For example in the Tien Shan Range there is abundance of mountain-desert and semidesert landscapes in association with gray-brown or brown mountain soils at the foothills; further upwards are located montane steppes associated with mountain chestnut soils and chernozems; beneath parts of the forest-steppe and forests, the soils become podzolized.

Typical of eastern Siberia’s mountains are the taiga-tundra spectra that occur in vertical zones: mountain taiga on taiga-cryogenic soils is followed by dwarfed trees, then mountain tundra, then bald peaks.

In eastern Asia, subalpine and alpine meadow zones with mountain-meadow soils sometimes disappear; instead, mountain-forest landscapes extend up to the vicinity of the crests and are followed by only stunted shrubs and trees. In South Asia (particularly in the Himalayas), the alpine regions (particularly the Himalayas) have the most diverse vegetation and soils.

Soil effects of human activity

Agriculture has been practiced in many areas for a long time, causing significant changes to the original soils. These agricultural soils often contain humus and high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and trace elements, with deposits ranging between 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 metres) thick. The Loess Plateau in China is known for its ‘black-land’ (heitu) soils, which consist of a layer of organic material about 1-3 feet deep that was added by the local farmers over many years. Rice cultivation in moist climates can also have an impact on the soil cover, leading it to become degraded from flooding and subjected to ‘gleying’ – a process that reduces nutrient levels – but soil properties remain consistent even after centuries. Despite this, these ‘rice soils’ are not considered highly fertile.

Among the most harmful and extended effects of irrigation on soil cover in Asia, secondary salinization is the most significant. Due to improper agricultural practices, this process is prevalent in the arid, semiarid, and subhumid zones of Asia that are irrigated without adequate drainage. Central Asia, South Asia, and Southwest Asia have large areas of salt-affected soil.

A significant amount of soil degradation has occurred in the Ganges (Ganga) River basin, the lower Himalayas, the Huang He basin, and the Loess Plateau due to erosion. Deforestation of water-catchment areas in the mountains as well as year-round cultivation of the plains have contributed to severe soil erosion.

Asia’s climate

Patterns of air masses and winds

Climate on the continent

Climate regions in Asia

The Himalayan range

The great size and many mountain ranges in Asia have resulted in drastic variations across regions in solar radiation, atmospheric circulation, rainfall and the climate overall. A continental climate, which large landmasses are known for with an extreme yearly temperature change, covers most of the continent. Atlantic air coming from either Europe or Africa has been changed by the time it reaches Asia as it has lost a lot of its water vapor content taken up over the vast ocean. Moving eastward in the midlatitudes and isolated by marginal mountain chains limit Pacific Ocean air to just the eastern side of Asia. The Arctic weather is given easy access from the north and tropical/equatorial weather from south but their entry into the mainland is hindered by mountains running from West Asia, through Himalayas to southern China and southeast Asia. Moreover, during winter (November-March), cold air masses remaining on top of the inside also limits any progress.

In the summer months, May to September, the continent experiences a significant rise in temperature. This contrast with winter’s chill further intensifies seasonal changes in atmospheric circulation and highlights local centres of atmospheric activity. The Asian landmass is heavily impacted by a persistent high-pressure winter anticyclone centred southwest of Lake Baikal. The region is characterized by temperature inversions, very cold weather and low snowfall levels. This anticyclone is driven by subsiding upper air, Arctic bursts from the north and westerly air drift associated with cyclonic lows operating within the Northern Hemisphere storm system. As a result, cold and dry winds are propelled eastward and southward from the continent influencing eastern and southern Asia during winter. Occasional cyclonic systems move east from Europe but don’t always reach across Asia; however these do bring more changeable weather conditions to western Siberia compared to central Siberia. The coldest temperatures on record can be found near Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon setting records at -90 & -96°F respectively.

In winter, eastern and northeastern Asia experience a striking coldness as compared to the global average temperature at its respective latitude. On East Asian islands, this continental monsoon effect is counteracted by the warmth of the nearby seas. As air passes over these waters it absorbs moisture and heat, resulting in precipitation such as snow or rain along western parts of the archipelago. Occasionally though, intense cold gusts can reach even far south cities like Hong Kong and Manila.

Polar front

Cyclones form and move eastward in the polar front – an area where temperate and tropical air masses meet – which shifts south in winter. This coincides with the winter rainy season in Southern West Asian highlands, which is characteristic of Mediterranean climates. The effects of cyclonic activity is notable in Northern West and Middle Asia during spring, when the polar front moves north and results in the highest amount of annual precipitation.

During the northern winter, South and Southeast Asia are affected by northeasterly winds which arise from high-pressure areas of the North Pacific Ocean and travel towards the equatorial low-pressure zone. These winds are comparable to the trade winds, and are referred to as the northeast (or winter) monsoon in South Asia. This brings dry and moderately warm weather. The only place with precipitation during this season is the windward side of coastal regions eg. Tamil Nadu in India or southern Vietnam. Moreover, storms that move eastwards through the Mediterranean Basin during winter are often deflected south of Tibet, eventually crossing northern India as well as southwestern China. Such occurrences do not usually bring rain, but result in brief spells of cloudy, cool or gusty climate along with snowfall in higher mountain ranges.

As summer approaches, the polar front shifts northwards causing cyclonic rain in Siberia’s mountainous regions. This creates a hot and dry continental tropical wind that blows across West, Middle and Central Asia. The basin of the Indus River experiences low pressure due to heating – known as the South Asian (or Iranian) low – present from April onwards and most intense from June to August. It is related to changes in the circulation pattern occurring in June such as the southern jet stream disintegrating and a monsoon low-pressure zone forming over southern Asia. Monsoon air masses then flow into this region from a high pressure cell off the eastern coast of southern Africa, which is caused by Earth’s rotation resulting in winds shifting from southeast to southwest in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. By early June monsoon rain bursts upon India’s Malabar Coast before spreading northwards over most of its subcontinent and mainland Southeast Asia, leading to 80-90% of their annual precipitation during this time.

In eastern Asia, the Pacific Ocean polar front produces atmospheric disturbances during the summer. From a high-pressure centre present over the western part of the ocean, warm and moist summer monsoon blows from the southeast towards the continent. In areas located south of latitude 38° N, where the Kuroshio (Japan Current) approaches Japan’s coast, extended rains and high humidity occur along with soaring temperatures, forming a steamy atmosphere. As it moves northward and passes through cold currents in the ocean, the air cools down and brings foggy weather and drizzling rain to northeastern Asia.

Typhoons and monsoons

Asia’s monsoon season begins

In summer, air from the western Pacific may drift into China with varying strength. When this is combined with intense low pressure on the continental interior, it can create an effective monsoon which pushes moisture far eastwards, as far as Mongolia. Alternatively, if neither the drift nor the continental low is strong, the Chinese monsoon can be less predictable and severe weather patterns can pose a threat to crop growth. Generally, monsoonal conditions are not as intense here compared to other parts of the world; around 50-60% of China’s yearly rainfall comes from them.

Haiyan, the super typhoon

Coastal and insular South, Southeast, and East Asia can be affected by tropical cyclones all year round, but they are usually most severe during the late summer and early autumn. Typhoons are accompanied by strong winds and torrential rains so heavy that the total amount of precipitation received may exceed the total amount received during the normal summer monsoons.

Monsoon in Assam, India

In winter, air from the continental tropics prevails in tropical Asia; this is replaced by equatorial ocean air when summer comes around. Winds at this time of year are dry and warm and move offshore toward the equatorial low-pressure axis – like trade winds, but they act as South Asian continental monsoons too. Making a sudden and drastic change, these give way to rainy summers with monsoon weather arriving, bringing amounts of rain that can reach 25 inches (635mm) within a month! Over areas in tropical Asia close to the Equator, such as southern Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Greater Sunda Islands, equatorial air is constantly present with temperatures similar all year round and plentiful rainfall. The Lesser Sunda Islands have a tropical monsoon climate where wet and dry seasons follow a calendar rhythm set by Southern Hemisphere’s pattern of wet summers (November to February) and dry winters (June to October).

Topography’s influence

The topography of Asia plays a considerable role in the climatic differences between its regions. In particular, along the southern slopes of the Himalayas, varying from tropical climates in the foothills to extreme Arctic conditions in the peaks, this impact is most distinct. The degree of exposure further impacts climate: for example, south-facing slopes are sunny whereas north-facing ones tend to be shadier and windward slopes exposed to ocean winds are wetter than leeward ones, which get less rain living in its wind shadow. The barrier effect is especially pronounced within areas with a monsoon circulation, such as East, Southeast and South Asia where the winds come from a constant direction – moisture then being absent from those leeward slopes due to foehn wind; hot & dry gusts that travel down mountain ranges. Examples of this type of contrast can also be found across Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Tien Shan range and Transbaikalia among others.

In the West Asian highlands and Central Asia, relief exerts the most isolating barrier effect on the climate. The surrounding mountains isolate the interior tablelands from moisture-laden winds in those regions. The massiveness of the interior highlands also plays a significant role; it contributes to local anticyclones during the cold months.

The temperature

Russia, Bilibino

January temperatures in much of Siberia typically fall below -4°F (-20°C), with the area around Verkhoyansk reaching as low as -58°F (-50°C). However, on the coastal Pacific, air moderated by the ocean can decrease the average temperature to between 23-5°F (-5 to -15°C). The isotherm (a line connecting points of equal temperature) of 32°F (0°C) stretches east from Anatolia and Iran highlands and skirts southward through the Pamirs, Karakoram Range, and Himalayas before running northeast through China, south Korea and Japan’s central Honshu. The Tropic of Cancer has an isotherm of 68 °F (20 °C) with a further one at 77 °F (25 °C) in more southern locations.

India’s Thar Desert

Throughout July, the most extreme temperatures can be experienced in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula and in the Thar (Great Indian) and Takla Makan deserts. The 68 °F (20 °C) isotherm stretches up to 55° to 60° N latitude, however, near the tranquil Pacific Ocean, it turns southward. Areas near the northeastern coast of Asia have an average temperature that is below 50 °F (10 °C) in July – which is typical for a tundra climate. The highest variance between annual temperatures on Earth occurs close to the “cold pole” where summertimes are surprisingly warm; this range may even surpass 175 °F (97 °C).

Amount of precipitation

Precipitation in Asia

In the equatorial belt, precipitation is typically around 80 inches (2,000 mm) a year. However, some areas of South, Southeast and East Asia have much higher amounts of rainfall; up to 500 inches (12,700 mm) on maritime windward slopes. Cherrapunji in northeastern India has seen remarkable amounts, with 22,900 mm of rain falling over seven months in 1891. In contrast to this, tropical lee slopes receive far less – typically under 40 inches (1,000 mm) annually. Moving away from the tropics into subtropical and temperate monsoon climates more moderate levels are observed; between 24 and 80 inches (600 and 2,000 mm). Lastly in the very dry places of West, Middle and Central Asia annual precipitation can be as little as 4 inches (100 mm), or no more than 10 inches (250 mm) in northeastern Siberia.

Regions with different climates

Distribution of precipitation over the course of the year is varied. Equatorial Asia experiences relatively uniform precipitation levels. Sub-equatorial zones and other areas with monsoon climates experience maximum summer moistures, with minimums during winter; this is likewise true for those regions where front movement occurs in the summer—the polar front in southern Siberia’s mountains, and the Arctic front in subarctic locales. The Mediterranean climate zone of West Asia sees wet winters and dry summers, with peak precipitation happening during springtime Polar Front activity. In some parts of Asia, summer and winter rain come together—in Georgia’s Kolkhida region east of the Black Sea, for example, there is a merging of northwesterly Atlantic air currents’ rains with cyclonic Mediterranean rains during winter months. Lastly, in some places such as Japan, Korea, and eastern China, uniform precipitation levels occur due to combination of both monsoons; summer and winter alike.

The climates in Asia differ drastically, from the tundra of the Arctic lowlands to the equatorial climate of the Greater Sunda Islands. Cold and humid western Siberian and Mediterranean subtropical climates are found in West Asia, while a subtropical desert climate is present in the temperate zone. In highlands such as Central Asia, alpine desert and mountain-steppe climates prevail. Eastern Siberia hosts a sharply continental climate, while tropical deserts lie further south. East Asian Siberia, northern Japan, and eastern China experience a temperate monsoon climate, contrasting with southeastern China’s subtropical monsoon climate and South Asia’s subequatorial monsoon conditions. These prevailing meteorological patterns influence not only other natural elements but also the wider landscape.

Climate in urban areas

Humans have a marked impact on climate with activities both social and economic. The microclimates of cities and large production sites are one example, where dust and gas emissions can affect temperatures and wind direction. This can be observed at Tokyo-Yokohama, Kolkata (Calcutta), northern Kyushu in Japan, northeastern part of India, as well as the Kuznetsk Coal Basin in south-central Siberia.

Yefremov, Yury Konstantinovic Ryabchikov, Alexander Maximovich Alexeeva, Nina Nikolaevna

Life of plants

A wide variety of vegetation can be found on the continent of Asia due to its wide range of latitudes, elevations, and climates. The associations of trees, plants, and grasses in Asia are not entirely due to natural conditions; farming and other human activities have transformed natural landscapes for more than eight millennia.

Vegetation patterns according to geography

Asia North and Central

Peninsula of Taymyr

North Asia is sparsely populated, making its natural landscape less affected by human activity. In this region, the continental climate and proximity to the Arctic Ocean have created an area of tundra – cold-tolerant vegetation which includes lichens, mosses, sedges, rushes and some grasses. Dwarf trees of willow and birch can also be found in the more flourishing areas. The summer months bring about strong sunlight hours similar to those in the tropics, manifesting in various wildflowers that bloom during this period. Extreme weather conditions still persist though; in the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago off the Arctic coast, May marks thawing while Augustsis marked by frost – although there are some years where frosts may occur throughout summer at night. The soil beneath the surface stays frozen up to a depth of 2-3 feet (60 to 90 cm), thereby creating peat bogs due to bad drainage in hollows and water evaporation caused by windy conditions. Wind erosion further strips away sediments deposited by riverine floods each year.

A tundra belt extends even further south on higher ground. In the Arctic, tundra begins at about 3,800 feet (900 metres), but at 53° N it begins at 4,250 feet (1,300 meters). The Chersky, Verkhoyansk, and Kamchatka mountain ranges are covered by tundra.

The taiga zone, a belt of primarily coniferous forest, is located south of the tundra and preceded by a transitional zone with wooded tundra and forests along streams connecting the tundra-covered regions. In addition to evergreen conifers, the taiga also consists of hardy deciduous trees like aspen and birch; grasslands and shrub steppes can be found in drier areas. Larches dominate a third of Siberia’s vast woodland, followed by pine on about one quarter and spruce on a small proportion. The vegetation distribution is principally determined by climate; for example, spruce doesn’t exist east of the Yenisey River due to its incapability to survive temperatures below -36°F (-38°C). The taiga supports an open understory of cranberries and bilberries, as well as extensive peat bogs.

Additionally, the broad-leaved deciduous forest of western Siberia does not extend east of the Yenisey—where it gives way to coniferous forests of central Siberia—but it reappears near the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Siberia, where poplars, birches, and alders are plentiful, along with a variety of conifers and larches. The Ussuri River is surrounded by maple trees, ash trees, walnut trees, elm trees, and linden trees, among others.

South of the Siberian forests lies vegetation which is predominantly forest-steppe and meadow-steppe, such as forest galleries which line the rivers. This steppe (grassland) zone travels from Kazakhstan in the West, passing through the Altai Mountains and on to the Da Hinggan (Greater Khingan) Range found in the East. The herbaceous cover of this region includes feather grass, rootstock grasses, and sagebrush which are used for grazing. Farther South, this is replaced with sporadic semideserts and deserts. Toward the East, these steppes stretch towards the southern part of the Ordos Plateau and into Eastern China’s monsoonal landscapes.

Artemisia species and halophilic (salt-tolerant) bushes are scattered throughout Tibet, which is mostly dry and cold.


Honshu: central part of the country

With a monsoonal climate in East Asia, summers are hot and rainy, leading to a wide variety of tropical and temperate plants. With about 30,000 species, excluding mushrooms and mosses, China has the world’s most diverse vegetation. Because Pleistocene glaciations had a negligible impact on the region’s climate, there is a large number of relict forest species among the vast variety of plants, which includes a large number of relict forest species.

Approximately two-thirds of Japan is covered in forests, while the majority of China has undergone deforestation (around one-seventh forest cover). Even so, patches of untouched woodland can still be found in many remote and rural areas of China, with numerous smaller plots having been replanted. The discrepancy between the two countries can be attributed to the reverence Japan holds for its landscapes and subsequent implementation of stringent forestry legislation. Moreover, due to the challenging terrain and remoteness of much of Japan’s forests, they have proven difficult to develop economically. The most impressive examples of East Asian forestation are therefore present in Japan; a prime example being the Kii Peninsula on Honshu.

Chinese coconut palm trees

To the north of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang), large swaths of what once was virgin deciduous forest have been replaced by agricultural land. South of the river, though, many natural woodlands remain with tall trees such as oaks, maples, lindens, chestnuts and hickory taking up much of the space. There are also tropical genera including magnolia, tulip trees, camphor trees and Spanish cedars as well as lianas (vines) and conifers from both hemispheres. In eastern Sichuan, an ancient Chinese conifer called the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is found in mountain regions. Palm trees are naturally occurring in South China, southern South Korea and southern Japan while bamboo is widespread across those same areas.

A massive reforestation program has been underway in China, but the new forests, largely made up of pines, are nothing like the ancient ones.

Asia’s south and southeast

Forests of Chhattisgarh, India

The Western Ghats and other wet parts of peninsular India and Southeast Asia are home to rich tropical forests, abounding with a wide range of plants, including many species from the Dipterocarpaceae family which provide aromatic oils and resins. Areas with seasonal monsoon climates (i.e. four to eight dry months) host moist- and dry-deciduous forests filled with valuable trees like teak, sal, and sandalwood – products heavily exploited by humans. In regions with longer dry seasons and less precipitation (e.g. northwestern India, the interior Deccan plateau, or Myanmar’s “dry zone”) savanna woodlands and acacia-euphorbia thickets dominate the terrain. Agriculture has consumed much of the natural vegetation in South and Southeast Asian lands – notably alluvial plains – leaving an environmental footprint that is hard to ignore.

Thailand’s mangrove roots

There are many mangrove swamps along the sheltered muddy coasts and deltas. Rhizophora (red mangrove) dominates their outermost edge, followed by Bruguiera and Avicennia (white mangroves). Nipa palms are abundant in the bogs on the landward edges of those swamps.

The primary evergreen rainforest persists in a few parts of South and Southeast Asia, while secondary forests cover a much larger area. As a result of intensive grazing, tree harvesting, and shifting (slash-and-burn) agricultural practices, a once universally dense forest has given way to parklike forests and wooded savannas. These areas have been burned extensively, resulting in herbaceous landscapes, such as the cogonales of the Philippines (cogonales of coarse tall grasses used for thatching).

Rubber plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia are particularly dependent on Hevea brasiliensis, which was introduced from South America in the 1870s.

In SE Asia, higher mountains bring about a cooler and more humid-tropical climate, with temperate forest ranging between 1,300-3,000 metres. Above that level, heath families predominate, which range in variety from little bamboos of the Rakhine Mountains of Myanmar to oaks and conifers in the Eastern Himalayas, with firs at 3-4,000 metres. The central Himalayas feature exquisite scenes following an upwards progression from dry sal forests to cedars and spruces; pines and oaks; firs and tall rhododendrons; then bushes and junipers above 13000 feet, transitioning into perpetual snow layers above 4,900 metres.


Turkmenistan, Karakum Desert

In West Asia, the occurrences of naturally wild vegetation across the region are scattered. Generally, the region is described as arid with desert-like depressions such as Kyzylkum Desert in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan and Rubʿ al-Khali (Empty Quarter) of the Arabian Peninsula. Despite this, three distinct climatic zones have been identified; a continental climate to the north, a dry zone to the south (except where moisture from northerly winds nourish its mountain ranges) and a Mediterranean climate to the west.

It is easy to distinguish a variety of vegetation in various climatic zones. For example, the Karakum Desert has a gnarled and odd-looking saxaul tree, a popular source of firewood, with young shoots fit for camel fodder. The area between the Fertile Crescent – extending from Tigris-Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean Sea – and its northern and western edge of Syrian Desert is occupied by some 2,000 species of plants – more than Sahara. Turning up north to Turkey, one can observe superior beech and conifer forests surrounded by tall cherry laurels, holly and creepers on the slopes of Pontic Mountains. Similar forest types are found in Georgia and the Elburz mountain in Iran. Lastly, at Mediterranean borderlines throughout Asia, one shall find landscapes characterized by holm oak trees, Aleppo pines for shipbuilding materials, cistuses as well as mastic trees bearing aromatic resins which used to be covered in thick forests but are now largely reduced to grasslands and scrubland due to logging practices combined with heavy grazing activities by livestock.

Society and vegetation

Traditional civilization’s vegetation

Bamboo groves in Japan

Asia has been home to a wide range of native vegetation, which have provided many of the world’s major foodstuffs. Cereals and oilseeds, as well as fruits and veg, are all among the crops that first originated in this part of the world. Three primary centres for these domestications have been identified; one in the southwest with wild strains of wheat, barley and legumes being developed near to the Levant, northern Syria and Transcaucasia; another in the south where rice, root crops like taro and yams, bananas and mangoes were bred; and a third one based north of China that witnessed cultivation of foxtail millet, soybeans and hemp.

A variety of building materials have been provided by Asian plant life, including wood, bamboo, thatch, ramie and flax for clothing, hemp for rope and sacks, bamboo, widely used for utensils, and bark cloth and paper from the paper mulberry tree bark. Further, silkworms eat mulberry leaves; lacquer is made from the lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera); and a wide variety of pharmaceuticals and drugs are produced from plants.

Natural landscapes and human impact

Rice paddies in Vietnam

Agriculture (both rain-fed and irrigated), livestock grazing, and forestry have all caused dramatic changes to Asian ecosystems. Wheat, corn (maize), barley, millet, soybean and rice are the most commonly grown crops across southern Siberia and northern Kazakhstan, northern China, India through Southeast Asia and South China to the Korean peninsula and Japan. These agricultural zones have greatly impacted the surrounding land; natural vegetation is largely confined to rugged terrain. As for arid regions such as Mesopotamia, Middle Asia and the Indus River valley – Human activity has been particularly intense in these areas due to irrigation. Furthermore, pastoral activities in steppes and deserts from the Arabian Peninsula to the Gobi as well as scrublands and former woodlands of the Asian Mediterranean region have also had a deep impact on human land use.

Areas with some of the least-perturbed ecosystems can be found in northern and eastern Siberia, the Plateau of Tibet, and the mountain ranges of Central Asia. On the other extreme are areas that have been drastically modified by humans such as eastern fringes of India’s Thar Desert, Inner Mongolia, Ordos region in China—all experiencing desertification due to overgrazing – and Aral Sea basin in Middle Asia. The latter was affected due to large-scale irrigation for cotton cultivation, which restricted the flow of Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that feed into it, depleted its area dramatically. As a result, a lethal concoction of salinity and pesticide residue from desiccated seafloor has been brought up in dust storms.

Gourou, Pierre

Ryabchikov, Alexander Maximovich Alexeeva, Nina Nikolaevna Life of animals

Rhinoceros of Sumatra

The Himalayas, a huge barrier stretching from east to west, blocks the movement of many species between north and south. The lands north of the mountain chain are part of the Palearctic or Old World subregion of the Holarctic zoogeographic region, which covers most of the Northern Hemisphere’s area north of the tropics. Asia south of the range is labelled as Oriental, or Indian. The line that divides these regions east and west isn’t incredibly defined since many mountains in this region have a mainly north-south orientation allowing for animal migration.

Humans have disrupted Asian faunal habitats, just as they have the continent’s vegetation. Especially in densely-populated regions such as the Indian river valleys and Eastern and Southern China. Luckily for many animal species, Asia is so vast that some remote areas remain unaffected by human activity. Nevertheless, there remain species threatened with extinction, like the giant panda of China and the Sumatran rhinoceros and orangutan of Southeast Asia.


A distinction can be made between the animal life of the tundra in the north and that of the adjacent taiga farther south. There are distinctive forms of animal life on the steppes, as well as the faunas of East and Southwest Asia. The taiga merges with the steppes.


Since the subsoil of the tundra is frozen all-year-round, burrowing species cannot inhabit it. Summer is the only season during which conditions are suitable for life, given that snow cover melts at this time. Reindeer, Arctic hares, foxes and wolves spend summer in the region and migrate in autumn. Lemmings remain in the tundra throughout the year and feed on buried herbage beneath snow. Polar bears may also be found during any season near coasts of Arctic/northern Pacific oceans as they mainly depend on seals and fish for sustenance. Unfortunately, hibernation isn’t an option due to the short duration of summer which does not allow enough opportunity to store necessary food reserves for winter.

In summer, birds are plentiful in the tundra – with the likes of willow grouse and ptarmigans living in snow tunnels, feeding on leaves and berries. Waders such as gray plovers, sanderlings, and several species of sandpipers come to breed there, feasting mainly on mosquitoes. The same insect is also a major source of food for passerine birds such as snow buntings and Lapland buntings. Larger predators like gyrfalcons, rough-legged buzzards, skuas hunt these smaller birds and lemmings. Different types of geese, ducks and terns can be found inhabiting wetter areas while divers also occupy them.

Taiga, Siberia

The taiga is teeming with wildlife, including brown bears, wolves, foxes and gluttons. Otters, ermines and sables also inhabit this area. Predators like lynx and elk hunt here alongside their prey – forest reindeer, hares and several types of squirrels. You also can find many bird species such as grouse, woodpeckers and pine grosbeaks as well as crossbills, siskins, redpolls, bluethroats, rubythroats and redwings. The terek sandpipers can be spotted in marshes or pools. And last but not least are the fieldfares, nutcrackers and Siberian jays.

Seals of Baikal

Lake Baikal has a unique aquatic life, including many endemic species of sponges, worms, crustaceans, and the Baikal seal (Phoca sibirica). Many freshwater fish species inhabit the rivers of North Asia, as well as sturgeons, including sterlets.


Steppes of Kyrgyzstan

The steppes are distinctive in regard to their animal life, which bears little resemblance to that found in the taiga or tundra. Numerous rodents like jerboas, marmots and pikas, as well as larger mammals like antelope, originally populated the steppes. Sadly, few of these animals remain wild today – domesticated animals such as Bos taurus (cattle), horses, and Bactrian camels have taken their place. Common birds include bustards, quail, sand grouse and red-legged hobbies. Hoopoes, rollers and bee-eaters can also be found in certain areas while sand martins nest near riversides. Waterfowl live in the reed beds of big rivers alongside locusts which migrate in huge numbers with potential to damage crops.

Tibet is home to the wild yak, which is in great danger of extinction, but the domesticated yak survives. The wild sheep and goats are found in the mountains and on the plateaus to the north of the Himalayas.

Asia – East and Southwest

Panda giant

The eastern part of this region, which spans from northeastern and eastern China, the Korean peninsula, to Japan, is populated by many endemic species of deer. The Siberian tiger, a native inhabitant of southeastern Siberia, northeastern China, and Korea is now only found in a small area near the border of Russia and China. Further south towards the mountain forests of south-central China resides the giant panda – an endangered species. Although smaller than its giant panda counterpart, the lesser or red panda is related and inhabits the Himalayan region. Lastly Japan boasts its own unique species such as the tailless Barbary macaque of Gibraltar’s relative monkey.

China’s rivers contain an abundance of fish species, including the Psephurus gladius from the Yangtze and Huang He – a solitary example of its family which has otherwise become extinct, with its North American counterpart being the only other remaining species. The giant salamander can be found in Japan’s lakes and rivers, while Southeast Asia and China are home to most of the carp family, which includes various goldfish species.

Anatolia’s animal life is similar to the rest of the Mediterranean, but the animal life in Israel, Syria, and Arabia also includes African elements, such as the hyrax and the Nile perch, which can be found in Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) and the Jordan River. It is believed that the donkey was domesticated in Southwest Asia, while the dromedary (one-humped) camel was originally native to Middle Asia.

Oriental regions Animals A panda

An orangutan.

Much of the Orient is tropical, with the northwestern area being dry and arid. As a result, animal life in that region is similar to the dry regions of Ethiopia and Palearctic. Monkeys are abundant across the region, with most apes only located in rainforests. Gibbons have their habitat distributed between India’s northeast, Myanmar, peninsular Southeast Asia as well as Greater Sunda Islands. Lastly, orangutans are almost only found on Sumatra and Borneo but are now vulnerable to extinction.

An eagle

The tigress

The African lion is mainly found in the Gir Forest National Park of Gujarat, India, where it is protected. It’s believed that a few are still present in southeastern Iran. Tigers live throughout the Himalayas and Sumatra, although their area of distribution was once more extensive. Leopards exist everywhere but Sumatra and civets and mongooses are common sights. The ratel – a badger-like creature – inhabits hill regions of the Indian Peninsula and can also be found in Israel. Jackals are abundant in India while the striped hyena has been confined to dryer parts, however they are absent from eastern lands.

A variety of squirrels live in woodlands, including flying squirrels and ordinary squirrels. Gaurs (large wild oxen) inhabit India and Myanmar, and bantengs (Malayan wild oxen) live in Myanmar, Borneo, and Java, but not Sumatra.

The blackbuck is the most pervasive antelope in India, apart from on the Malabar Coast. The nilgai and chousingha, meanwhile, inhabit hilly regions south of the Himalayas. Musk deer live in the pine zone of Kashmir, Nepal and Sikkim; sambar deer are widespread; and muntjac may be found as far north as southern China.

Tapirs from Malaya

Tapir of the Malay Peninsula

Chevrotains, small hornless deerlike ruminants, are found in the region, as well as wild pigs. Indian one-horned rhinoceroses are confined to Nepal and Assam, and Sumatran two-horned rhinos survive only in the deep forests of Malaysia, southern Sumatra, and northern Borneo; their numbers being only a few dozen. The habitat of the Malayan tapir is dense forests in southern Myanmar, Malaysia, and Sumatra. Indian elephants inhabit most areas and scaly anteaters (or pangolins) – also present in Africa – are characteristic animals. Notably, tropical breeds of cattle (Bos indicus), known as Brahman or zebu with their distinctive shoulder humps have been domesticated in India; water buffalo originating from there too now exist between Egypt to central China and even the Philippines.

The birds

Peacock of India

Peacocks are important game birds. The Indian peacock can be found throughout India, but another species is restricted to Java (Pavo muticus). In the forests of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo, there are numerous species of pheasants. All domesticated chickens originate from jungle fowl, which are unique to the Oriental region. Pigeons are abundant, but there are few parrot species compared to other tropical regions.

Hornbills of the great plains

Water and wood kingfishers, hornbills and the Indian hoopoe are all featured species in the Oriental region. The brain-fever bird, an Asian hawk cuckoo, is also commonly known for its repetitious call. In addition to these birds of prey like eagles, osprey, falcons, hawks, kites and buzzards can be spotted here. Particularly in the western part of the region, vultures are known to inhabit even urban areas.

A multitude of woodpeckers populate the forests, with barbets as a common example – such as the coppersmith bird. Bee-eaters and rollers are prevalent in India, although the former can also be found up to the Malay Archipelago. Passerines, including house crows, Indian grackles, and common mynahs are widespread. Drongos, flycatchers, bulbuls, tailorbirds, orioles and broadbills typify the region too. Herons like white cattle egrets abound here but spoonbills, cranes and gulls usually just reside in western regions.

Amphibians and reptiles

Cobra king

Of the crocodiles the gavial, which has long slender jaws and a soft inflatable nose tip, is restricted to the large rivers of northern India; a species of an allied genus is found in Sumatra and Borneo; and the mugger (the common freshwater crocodile) and the estuarine crocodile have a wider distribution.

The fish

Gouramis of giant size

In the Oriental region, there are many native carp and catfish genera and species. The labyrinth fish (so named for a labyrinthine outpocketing of the gill chamber that allows them to take oxygen from both air and water), of which the climbing perch and the gourami belong, as well as spiny eels, are characteristic of the fish life of the region.


The great Mormon butterfly

Many invertebrates live in the area, including insects, arachnids (spiders, ticks, and mites), mollusks, and other creatures. Many large birdwing butterflies, which belong to a well-represented group of butterflies, are typical. Almost all known families of scorpions are present. One unusual difference is that the family Helicidae (a common family of land snails with lungs) isn’t present. The place they take is taken by other forms such as species of Hemiplecta and by land mollusks with back plates covered in horny or shelly material.

De Beaufort, Lieven Ferdinand Ryabchikov, Alexander Maximovich Alexeeva, Nina Nikolaevna

The people

Man from Peking

At least one million years ago, the human species occupied Asia. According to fossil evidence, humans may have arrived on the continent from Africa in the form of groups of the extinct species Homo erectus. There is much debate about whether modern Asian peoples evolved from those early humans or are descendants of anatomically modern people who migrated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago.

A discussion of Asian peoples and their cultural development cannot entirely exclude other parts of the Old World. The relatively recent, Western conceptual division of the Eurasian landmass into “Europe” and “Asia” has only minor significance in relation to the historic patterns of human occupation of the continent. The cultural diversity of Asia is greater than that of any other continent, because it represents ethnic types and linguistic systems that have evolved over long periods of time in separated regional homelands with distinct physical environments, as well as repeated patterns of modification and intermixture that have resulted from both peaceful and militant migrations. Some Asian territories have become highly diversified ethnic and linguistic mosaics in which there are mixed and overlapping elements.

Groups of ethnicity

Ancient migrations and prehistoric centers

Human migrations across the continent originated in Southwest Asia and a region encompassing the Mongolian plateaus and North China.

Movements from Southwest Asia continued toward Europe and Central Asia (including Middle Asia) and East Asia from prehistoric to historic times, possibly beginning as early as 60,000 years ago. Significant movements also occurred into India and Southeast Asia. Later patterns of mixing probably swallowed up small divergent migrational movements in other directions.

Important Asiatic migrations, however, also originated in Central Eurasia. Such movements must have begun as early as 10,000 years ago, but probably the most significant of those migrations for the present ethnic and linguistic makeup of the continent were those of the Indo-European-speaking peoples, beginning about 3000 BCE. Those peoples migrated both west into Europe and south and southeast into Southwest and South Asia. People who spoke a language ancestral to the modern Indo-Aryan languages began arriving in northern India about 2000 BCE. Other people speaking an early Iranian language probably spread into Iran about the same time. Migrations out of Central Asia continued into the early centuries CE as Mongols pushed westward Turkic peoples, who occupied large parts of western Central and Southwest Asia. The westward Asiatic movements also produced, over a period of time, much mixing of early European and Asiatic peoples in Central and West Asia. Northern Asia continued to be inhabited chiefly by thinly distributed residual elements of ancient eastern Asian peoples, although some fairly late northward movements of Turkic peoples did take place. In addition, prehistoric countermovements along the China coast may have carried early Asiatic migrants from South China and Southeast Asia northward into southern

Within the broad zone of Central Asia, periodic movements retracing older migratory routes have created overlapping and fragmented ethnic groups. Secondary and tertiary intermixing of many of those regionally derived groupings has resulted in still more complex patterns of ethnic identity and distribution. Thus, the original speakers of Uzbek, a Turkic language, were probably people from eastern Central Asia similar in appearance to Mongolians; some of them migrated westward to near the Volga River at an early date, then moved southward to become intermixed with peoples who probably spoke Iranian languages and looked much like modern Iranians. Today Uzbeks are widely distributed in Central Asia.

An ancient migration of similar impact to that of the speakers of Indo-European languages in West Asia was that of the Austronesian speakers in Southeast Asia. Both linguistic and archaeological evidence suggest that the first Austronesian languages may have been spoken on the island of Taiwan about 4000 BCE. Some Austronesian speakers traveled south and west to settle Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, and parts of peninsular Southeast Asia, where they may have mixed with preexisting populations; from Indonesia, Austronesian speakers later colonized Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. Others spread first south and then east along the coasts of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, probably mixing with earlier inhabitants. From there, speakers of the Oceanic subgroup of Austronesian—which includes the Polynesian languages, most of the languages of Micronesia, and many languages of Melanesia—spread to nearly all of the islands of the Pacific Ocean, including distant Hawaii and Easter Island. Today, Austronesian languages are spoken throughout insular Southeast Asia and beyond.

Some of the ancestors of the Burmans, the Lao, the Thai, and Southeast Asian minorities such as the Hmong, the Shan, and the Karen migrated southward or into upland enclaves in southern China. Those who migrated to the south were among the ancestors of the Burmans, the Lao, the Tai, and Southeast Asian minorities such as the Hmong, the Shan, and the Karen.

Many small-scale movements apart from the main trends have complicated the ethnic picture of particular regions; for example, scholars generally agree that a nomadic ethnic group began moving out of India no later than about 1000 CE and probably several centuries earlier and became the ancestors of the contemporary European Roma. A great variety of peoples also settled in the Caucasus region, including speakers of Iranian and other Indo-European languages, speakers of languages in at least two language families found only in the Caucasus, and speakers of Turkic languages.

Migrations in history

Floating markets in Thailand

Within historic time, the aggressive expansion of particular ethnic groups has either driven weaker groups away from their territory or resulted in the newcomers’ assuming control of the territory and reducing the older inhabitants to the status of ethnic minorities. Some of those weaker ethnic groups eventually have lost their identity through intermixture. In some instances, a new ethnic group with its own dialect has resulted from the mixing. In parts of Southeast Asia, for example, ethnic distinctions correspond to topography, with larger groups dominating state societies based in the coastal and riverine lowlands and minority groups with a smaller-scale tribal or clan-based organization occupying the interior uplands. Within what are now India and Pakistan, the migration of Indo-Aryan speakers eastward and southward produced discontinuous patterns of ethnicity.

Through military campaigns, Arabs spread Islam and Arab political structures westward into Africa and Spain, northward into Anatolia through the Levant, and eastward into Central Asia, Persia, India, and the Malay Archipelago. During the 7th century CE, these efforts led to a substantial Arab migration to Southwest Asia that lasted until the 16th century.

During the period of European imperialism, the penetration by Russians into North and Central Asia and by western Europeans into the oceanic fringes of South and East Asia carried those peoples to all parts of Eurasia. The expansion of commerce after the arrival of Europeans gave further impetus to a preexisting stream of migration from coastal China to Southeast Asia. The British also encouraged migration from the Indian subcontinent to Malaysia and Singapore. Since the 17th century, the resultant intermixing of peoples has produced new ethnic identities, including the Anglo-Indians of India and Sri Lankan Burghers. Intermarriage between Chinese immigrant men and local women has produced many people of mixed origin in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. American soldiers of European and African American ancestry have further complicated the ethnic mosaic in China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

States with a multiethnic population

Crowds in India

The development of modern forms of political administration among Asian states has produced some distinctive regional patterns. Some 100 separate ethnic groups were officially recognized during the Soviet period, with about 60 occupying ethnic territories with administrative status at major or minor levels. The larger units, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, became separate republics with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, while others have retained some degree of autonomy within Russia. China under the communist regime adopted a similar system and modified the imperial political structure in regions containing ethnic or linguistic minorities—primarily in southern and southwestern China, northwestern China, and Central Asia. Ethnic territorialism was relatively fixed and stable in the Soviet Union; but in China changes have occurred in the boundaries of its autonomous regions, and not all minorities have been granted internal territorial autonomy.

In India, many languages are spoken and many ethnic groups coexist. This means that ethnolinguistic recognition only occurs at the state level. The boundaries of many Indian states now roughly follow linguistic limits. Many minorities have not been given territories of their own, and the question of ethnic and linguistic territorial autonomy has given rise to considerable unrest within India. In both India and Pakistan, the tribal and frontier agencies formed during British rule have become full states on the basis of their cultural unity.

As a result of several upland ethnic minority groups militantly opposing forms of limited territorial autonomy offered by the government, Myanmar (Burma) attempted to integrate ethnic minorities into modern political structures with limited success. Although many governments have developed policies for integrating minorities into national life, ethnic minorities have long been denied formal recognition in most Southeast Asian countries.

Multiethnic Malaysia is a state in which Malays make up roughly half the population, with Chinese making up one-fourth, Indians and tribal minorities making up the remainder. The Malaysian constitution does not recognize the country’s pluralistic composition: Malay is the official language, with English also being recognized officially; Islam is a state religion (although religious freedom is guaranteed); and the head of state must be a Malay. Political parties, however, often represent ethnic groupings, and there are many ways in which all ethnic elements are represented in practice.

In Southwest Asia, ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities exist without formal recognition of their status. However, in Lebanon, for example, a significant proportion of its people are Christian and Muslims are divided between Sunnites and Shīʿites. In Israel there is a sizable Arab minority while Iran is only about half Persian in terms of ethnicity and language. In the Arab-majority states of the Persian Gulf migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia exist in significant numbers.

Asiatic languages

Languages of Indo-European origin in contemporary Eurasia

The languages of Asia are richly diverse. Most of the people of continental Asia speak one of three large language families. Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus (Tungusic) are among the Turkic subfamilies. Sino-Tibetan is made up of Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages. The Indo-European family consists of Indo-Aryan, Iranian, Slavic, and Armenian languages.

Language distribution in Caucasus

Except for the extensive eastward expansion of Russian (a Slavic language), the pattern of language distribution in Asia has remained relatively stable since the 18th century. Many languages in peninsular and insular Asia, as well as those in the Austroasiatic, Tai, Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao), and Dravidian families, are also spoken on the western bounds of Asia. Arabic and Hebrew (both Afro-Asiatic languages) and the Caucasian languages are also spoken on the western bounds of Asia.

However, many of the languages spoken by ethnic groups numbering a few thousand or less have become functionally extinct and exist today only in the records of linguists, if at all. The onslaught of new cultural patterns as well as more politically and economically influential languages cannot sustain those fragile groups for long.

Sino-Tibetan language distribution

In addition to Russian, which remains the primary public language in Siberia and is still an important language in Central Asian republics due to its teaching of a large number of non-Slavics, there are many other dominant languages that have gained speakers. Similarly, Mandarin Chinese—now known as putonghua (“common language”) in China—is spoken by more people than any other language in the world, although regional languages like Wu and Cantonese retain their vitality as well.

Distribution of Dravidian languages

While the Hindi-speaking population has increased tremendously in India, the other regional languages are not losing ground, despite enormous increases in the Hindi-speaking population. The major languages of northern India, including Hindi, evolved from Sanskrit and are members of the Indo-European language family, while the languages of southern India belong to the Dravidian family and include Tamil and Telugu. More than 10 different scripts are used in India. An Indian banknote has its value written on it in 13 Indian languages and also in English.

Languages of Austronesia

The island nations of Southeast Asia, each with hundreds of local languages, have adopted national languages to facilitate communication. Indonesia’s official national language is Bahasa Indonesia, but hundreds of local languages and dialects remain in use across the vast archipelago. Javanese, for example, has more native speakers than Bahasa Indonesia. The Philippines, which also has hundreds of local languages and dialects, has adopted Pilipino (or Filipino) as a national language, although it is the first language of only about one-fourth of the population. English—the language of administration when the Philippines was a U.S. possession—remains in wide use; both English and Pilipino are official languages.

Asian language patterns continue to be complicated by factors such as ethnic migration, extended commerce, and political flux. Around the old Central Asian oases and in southern Siberia, migrants from Russia and exiled ethnic groups have created ethnically and linguistically mixed regional populations. As European Russians moved into the new cities in Central Asia and western Siberia, Russian became the language of the cities; the older languages have been confined chiefly to the countryside. In other areas, the economic attraction of the cities, both for foreigners and for the rural poor, has created urban linguistic patterns of increasing complexity.

Spencer, Joseph E. Pannell, Clifton W. Chapman, Graham P.

Asian religions

Like all forms of culture, Asian religions can be classified geographically both in terms of their places of origin and their distribution. Asia is the birthplace of all the world’s major religions and hundreds of minor ones.


Indonesia, Prambanan

Hinduism is the oldest religion in South Asia. It is a unifying force of Indian culture and the social caste system—which Hindu tradition sees as a reflection of the relative spiritual purity of reincarnated souls. The religion has had little appeal outside the Indian cultural context, except on Bali and other “Hinduized” islands of Indonesia where it is practiced by Indian expatriates.

The Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India

Among the Tirthankaras

The tirthankara

During the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Jainism and Buddhism emerged as a reaction to Hindu practices. The principles of nonviolence and asceticism that Jainism embodied have deeply influenced Indian thought, even though it never reached beyond two modern states in northwestern India.

Buddhism arose in northeastern India as a “universal” alternative to hierarchical religion, offering nirvana, or enlightenment, to individuals regardless of culture or social station. In the centuries following its foundation, Buddhism gave rise to two main divergent schools: Theravada, which claimed orthodoxy adherence to the teachings of the religion’s founder, the Buddha, and Mahayana, which held its teachings to be the fullest account of the Buddha’s message. The monastically oriented Theravada predominates today in Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia, while the more liberal Mahayana, with its proliferation of philosophical schools and sects, has had an immeasurable impact on the civilizations of China, Korea, and Japan. Vajrayana, or Tantrism, is an esoteric form of Buddhism practiced in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia. In India itself—where the once sizable Buddhist population has diminished to a relatively small number of adherents—Vajrayana is most prevalent.

Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar, India

Sikhism, a monotheistic Indian religion, was founded in the Punjab in the late 15th century CE and has fueled the modern demands for independence in that region. In Punjab, the majority of the population are Sikhs, and Amritsar is the spiritual center of that religion.


Western Wall in Jerusalem

Southwest Asia is the birthplace of three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism, which originated in the eastern Mediterranean region some 4,000 years ago, holds that a covenant relationship exists between God (the source of divine law) and humanity. Most Asian Jews now live in Israel, although there are small Jewish communities in various other areas of the continent. In recent decades, a number of Jewish sects and reform movements have been founded elsewhere – including in Israel – alongside waves of immigrants from the region.

The Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem

Christianity, which was derived from Judaism some two millennia ago, has become the world’s largest religion. Christianity became dominant in Europe and in European derived cultures after it was adopted by the Roman and Byzantine empires. It is practiced by significant minority groups in many Asian countries (particularly South Korea) and by Roman Catholic majorities in East Timor and the Philippines.

The Great Mosque of Mecca

Islam dominates as the state religion of most Southwest Asian countries, and a substantial majority of Muslims live in Asia. Most Asian Muslims belong to the orthodox Sunni branch, except in Iran and Iraq, where members of the more esoteric Shiʿi branch are in the majority. There are other religions that developed in Southwest Asia, such as Zoroastrianism and Bahāʾī.


Village of Yangdong, Andong, South Korea

Ancient Chinese religious and philosophical traditions survive in the form of two main schools, Daoism (Taoism) and Confucianism. The two schools differ in orientation—Daoism stressing mystical experience and the individual’s harmony with nature, while Confucianism emphasizes the duty of the individual in society and government—but both have profoundly influenced Chinese and Chinese-derived culture. Indigenous Chinese folk religious traditions continue to influence the practice of both Daoism and Confucianism, as well as Buddhism, which has many adherents in China.

An entrance to the shrine

Shintō shrine entrance

Shintō refers to Japanese indigenous religious beliefs and practices. In spite of the fact that some practitioners of that tradition have absorbed influences from other belief systems, such as Confucianism, Daoism, or Buddhism, its fundamental principles are unique to Japanese culture, linking sacred power, rituals, and imperial nationalism.

Religions other than Christianity

South Korean mudang

Aside from the major religions mentioned above, many localized spiritual practices are found throughout Asia, including animism, particularly among certain ethnic minorities in South and Southeast Asia. Numerous North and Central Asian peoples practice mystical shamanism, and South Korea and Japan also practice shamanistic cults.

Patterns of settlement

Aspects of the environment

Terraced fields in the Philippines

Agriculture remains the major economic activity in Asia, though the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture is diminishing. Although marginal lands are being brought under cultivation in many parts of Southeast and East Asia, factors such as ecological factors are continuing to cause regional variations in population and economic activity. Parts of Southeast Asia, for example, can support high populations. Moist regions along the Southwest-Central Asia border, such as Turkey and Iran, have large populations.

In Southwest and Central Asia in general, however, agricultural productivity and population density vary markedly with the regional pattern of precipitation or the availability of water from humid highlands nearby. In the Central Asian republics, the older pastoral nomadism has been transformed into organized transhumance (i.e., the seasonal migration of stock between lowlands and mountains); consequently, the families that were formerly nomadic have become permanent residents in villages, and only herders accompany the flocks and herds. Northern Asia remains a semideveloped frontier region with short-season crops growing in favoured southern localities; however, breeding of newer varieties has extended agriculture northward. The Arctic fringe is being developed on the basis of mineral resource exploitation but only in particular localities. Siberia has remained lightly populated, with the population concentrated in scattered local centres.

Settlements in rural areas

Thailand, hill settlement

Population densities have increased everywhere, and the modernization of agriculture, increased mineral exploitation, and industrialization have brought about cultural change. Some small ethnic groups have been dying out, but larger groups often have accepted change and have increased in numbers. In South and East Asia, growing lowland populations are pressing hard on the available land as population densities exceed 2,000 persons per square mile (750 per square km). In Indonesia, government programs have encouraged farmers to relocate from Java, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, to more thinly populated Indonesian islands, where ethnic Javanese people have come into conflict with indigenous peoples.

A mud dwelling in Najrān, Saudi Arabia

Similarly, in Central Asia, both Chinese and Russian settlement programs have moved people from heavily populated regions into frontier zones in order to develop both agricultural and industrial resources. In southern Siberia the Soviet settlement program spread a thick wedge of European Russians and assorted ethnic minorities eastward to the Pacific Ocean and northward along every river valley to the Arctic Ocean. As a result, many of the Paleo-Siberian ethnic groups have been submerged and absorbed. Old trading posts, oasis towns, and the few old cities of southern Siberia and the Central Asian republics have been developed into modern industrial centres; those locations have been linked to modern transport systems by which raw materials and manufactured products flow to the European regions. Most new cities have been populated largely by European Russians, with Asian peoples remaining chiefly in the rural areas. The modernization of Southwest Asia—through the renaissance of Turkey and the impact of petroleum exploitation on the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Iran—has altered many of the old patterns of ethnic groupings in those areas. A further alteration of the historic pattern came in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel, to which large numbers of Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America migrated.

Settlements in urban areas

More than two-fifths of all Asians live in and around cities and towns, and increasing urbanization is heightening regional contrasts in population density. In many cities, such as Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, and even Shanghai, the ceaseless influx overwhelms the existing capacity to provide jobs, services, and appropriate shelter for new arrivals. Such areas typically lack proper water supply, electricity, sanitation, and transportation facilities, although over time the quality of the makeshift dwellings often improves.

Skyline of Tokyo

A distinctive adaptation on a large scale, called the extended metropolis, is emerging in some areas. In such a development, the expanding peripheries of the great cities merge with the surrounding countryside and villages, where a highly commercialized and intensive form of agriculture continues yet where an increasing portion of the farmers’ income is derived from nonfarm work. Some decentralization of urban industry occurs, and many new industrial and service jobs become available for the rural population. Movement of goods and people is extensive, if basic, achieved with bicycles, mopeds, carts, trucks, buses, and trains. The quasi-rural environs of urban centres offer to investors and residents alike advantages such as lower land costs, better labour markets, and less congestion and environmental pollution than exist in the cities proper. The extended metropolis model is thus an alternative form of urban growth that helps to divert what might otherwise be an overwhelming flood of migrants to the great cities. Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei-Shaanxi, Shanghai-Nanjing-Zhejiang-Jiangsu-Hubei, Hong Kong–Guangzhou–Sichuan-Hunan–Guizhou–Yunnan are examples of a

Chandrasekhar Sripat Pannell, Clifton W. Chapman, Graham P.

Trends in demographics

About three-fifths of the world’s population lives on the Asian continent, including China and India, which together account for nearly two-fifths of all humans.

Distribution of the early population

In the early 1750s, Asia’s population and ethnic distribution were relatively easy to describe. Paleo-Siberian, Tungusic, and Turkic peoples hunted, foraged, fished, or herded through most of northern Eurasia, which was relatively lightly populated. Some groups, such as the Nenets, Sakha, and Chukchi, had somewhat distinctive economies focused on a single activity or on activities that fluctuated seasonally.

Central Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia constituted a mixed zone dominated by nomadic pastoralists such as the Buryat Mongols and the Kyrgyz, while the lower plateaus and river valleys were scattered with agricultural districts settled by the Tajiks, Uighurs, Uzbeks, and other groups. Population density was relatively light; mountain regions were occupied only in summer, but there were locally concentrated populations centred on such large oases as Tashkent, Samarkand, Kashi (Kashgar), and Ürümqi (Urumchi), with smaller groupings around lesser sources of water. A similar pattern prevailed in Southwest Asia, which at that time was inhabited by Iranian, Arab, and Turkic peoples, with a scattering of minority ethnic groups.

“South and East Asia showed a more complex set of dual patterns. The largest components consisted of the highly civilized lowland populations, long settled on their land and engaged in sedentary agriculture and handicraft manufacturing. Market towns and cities were scattered over the countryside, and many small port towns dotted the seacoasts.”

Smaller components included the diverse ethnic groups scattered in wet deltaic lowlands, such as those of the Ganges, Irrawaddy, Chao Phraya, and Mekong rivers; the central plain of the island of Luzon in the Philippines; and northern Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Groups also were scattered throughout most of the hill and lower-mountain country. Their economies combined hunting and gathering with sedentary or shifting cultivation (the cultivation of new land for each successive crop), generally speaking. Those less densely populated areas had small populations that were dispersed in village settlements sustained by subsistence economies; limited handicraft manufacturing took place, and trade was confined to minor products. Towards the end of the 18th century, European colonial efforts were beginning to integrate production systems from eastern Eurasia into patterns of world trade. Supplying Europe with raw materials was to characterize early 20th century efforts as well.

Changes in the 20th century

Many smaller ethnic groups faced challenges to their autonomy as the spread of nation-states and economic exchange across the continent integrated them into larger social, political, and economic units. Many old languages declined, and many formerly distinctive ways of life persisted only as remnants or artificially preserved societies.

Each of the newly independent states in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam has exhibited a clear political and economic pattern of predominance by one or more of their country’s national groups. In Russia, ethnic Russians have been the dominant group; in China, Han (ethnic Chinese) are predominant; in Indonesia, the Javanese have been most powerful; in Southeast Asia generally, power has remained with lowland populations such as the Vietnamese in Vietnam and the Burmans in Myanmar while upland tribal peoples such as the Hmong or Shan have often faced disadvantages.

The expansion of dominant ethnic groups has steadily restricted the territory available for older, simpler societies; and modern economic patterns have largely replaced earlier practices. It is still possible to identify the region in which the Yukaghir formerly lived as a separate culture group in eastern Siberia, but—for the several hundred Yukaghir who remain—political absorption, acculturation, and internal social decay have made the classic description of the group largely a historic one. Many former horse-riding, tent-dwelling, sheep-herding Karakalpak now drive tractors on the grain farms established by the Soviets, live in permanent villages, and speak Russian in public. Some men of the Chota Nagpur hill region of eastern India, who formerly engaged in hunting and practiced shifting cultivation, now work in the steel mills of Jamshedpur. However, the Ainu have actively pursued a cultural revival since then.

Trends of the day

There is a great variation in population growth rates in Asia. Growth rates are falling in most Asian countries, but, even so, the United Nations has estimated that the continent’s population will exceed five billion by 2050—an increase of more than two-fifths from its estimated population in 2000. There have also been predictions that India’s population will overtake China’s by 2030. Advanced Japan has an essentially static, but aging, population. Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Georgia have falling populations. The Arab countries of the Middle East, however, have some of the world’s highest population growth rates: more than 3 percent annually in some Arab countries. In part that reflects Muslim traditions, which have frowned on birth control and granted women less control over fertility. In South Asia, the regions with the lowest growth rates are North and Central Asia, where the populations in some countries are actually declining.

Most non-Islamic Asian countries, aware of the adverse impact high rates of population growth have on economic growth and social progress, embarked on official birth control programs, which met with considerable success. Japan’s program perhaps has been the most effective. In existence since World War II, it includes well-publicized family-planning services, legalized abortion, and the provision of contraceptive devices. Indeed, the birth rate in Japan dropped so dramatically that the median age of the population has increased, and about 2010 the population actually began declining. In China fines and other penalties have been imposed on parents who have a second child without government approval, although by the early 21st century China had gradually begun to ease its one-child policy. South Korea, Taiwan, India, and Sri Lanka offer family-planning and birth-control services. Similar policies and plans exist in some Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, but have less overt public support. The Southeast and Southwest Asian countries lag behind in formal programs but public consciousness and basic planning have grown over time.

There is controversy about the cause of the sex ratio difference in various Asian countries, although there are many social and cultural factors that may contribute. For example, in some cases where there is a preference for sons over daughters, mothers may abort female fetuses due to social attitudes. Additionally, marriage practices in Asian countries tend to occur earlier than in industrialized nations, which can lead to a higher mortality rate for young mothers.

Chandrasekhar Sripati Pannell, Clifton W. Chapman, Graham P.

Asia’s economy

Considerations in general

While the economies of most Asian countries can be characterized as developing, there is enormous variation among them. This variation has a regional dimension. Most of the countries of Southwest Asia, North and Central Asia, and South Asia fall within one of the middle-income categories as defined by the World Bank. Exceptions are Israel and the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which are considered high-income. Most of the countries of East Asia are considered upper-middle-income, and Japan is considered high-income. China, which has experienced dramatic rates of economic growth since the late 20th century, may be poised to achieve lower-middle-income status.

The explanation for these varying degrees of development is complex and multifaceted. Before World War II, different countries adopted different strategies to achieve economic development. Since then, different countries have chosen between socialism or capitalism. During that period, countries also chose between self-sufficiency and external trade and investment. The contrasting success of these two economic systems can be seen nowhere better than in the Korean peninsula, where capitalist South Korea has achieved a relatively high level of prosperity while socialist North Korea has experienced repeated famines and economic difficulties.

Industrialization has provided the primary means of economic development for some economies. For countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, this has meant manufacturing consumer goods, such as electronics, footwear, or clothing, often as contractors for foreign firms. However, in general these countries have found it hard to develop economic sectors independent of oil production for future sustainable growth.

Although most people in Asia still work in agriculture, usually on small peasant farms. Despite providing a declining share of the gross domestic product, agriculture remains the largest employer in China and India. Consequently, rural areas of these countries tend to be the worst-off. Nevertheless, urbanization has increased the number of rural peasants leaving the countryside for the cities since the mid-20th century.

The population shift from rural areas to the cities in Asia is an unprecedented migration. In China, systems of residential permits aim to control the flow, but many peasants move to Chinese cities even without official permits. In Indonesia, by contrast, there is effectively no control, although there are policies to try to diffuse the location of new industrial employment. As industry has become increasingly mechanized, it has often not provided much proportional growth in employment. It is the service sectors of the expanding cities that have shown the fastest growth in employment in recent years. In the poorer countries much of the employment growth is in what is known as the informal sector—a term referring to small, often family-owned businesses operating outside state regulation or control and mainly engaged in petty services or petty manufacturing.

To date, increases in food production have allowed most countries to feed their growing populations, but the balance between population growth and food supply has been delicate. For example, rice production per acre in Bangladesh is about half that of South Korea. Only about one-fifth of Asia’s land is arable, and it has been increasingly difficult to expand production by extending the amount of cultivated land, although in some areas, such as western Indonesia, forest has continued to be cleared for colonization. In most tropical and subtropical parts of Asia, cropping intensity has risen—i.e., arable land increasingly has been cultivated for more than one crop (and in some areas, such as Bangladesh, sometimes even three crops) each year. The dominant methods by which the major grain crops are produced remain labour-intensive. Crop yields vary greatly throughout Asia. For example, rice production per acre in Bangladesh is about half that of South Korea. Mechanization has been important for some crops, such as wheat and corn (maize), but in general it has not been so important for rice growing. Significant efforts to increase production have occurred through the so-called Green Revolution, which involved introducing hybrid seed strains that have been responsive to chemical fertil

Asian economic interdependence has increased significantly during the late 20th century as a result of increasing trade, investment, and better access to information. Japanese investment dominates much of East and Southeast Asia; formal organization of the regional economy remains relatively weak, although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has worked reasonably well. For most countries in Southeast Asia, trade with other Southeast Asian countries has grown less quickly than trade with Japan. In 1995, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation proclaimed a South Asian Free Trade Area as one of its policy goals, but such a zone has not yet been realized. The Persian Gulf countries have sometimes achieved sufficient unity to act together through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC; which includes non-Asian members) to control oil prices, but otherwise there has been little regional integration in Southwest Asia. Siberia, the eastern portion of Russia, suffered after the collapse of Soviet central planning in the early 1990s; since then, the Russian central government has abandoned the region to manage on its own. The remote location and fierce climate have discouraged private investors from exploiting much of Siberia’s vast mineral and timber resources, except for heavily developed petroleum and gas deposits in western Siberia.

The resources

Almost every important mineral has been found in Asia’s mineral reserves, resulting from the immense size of the continent and its geologic diversity. Coal, petroleum, natural gas, uranium, iron, bauxite, and other ores are abundantly available or are being explored; much wealth remains to be discovered. Inaccessibility has, however, been a barrier to their exploitation at times.

Resources of mineral origin

The coal industry

Asia has large reserves of coal, amounting to nearly three-fifths of the world’s total. The largest reserves are found in Siberia, the Central Asian republics, India, and especially China; Indonesia, Japan, and North Korea have smaller but nonetheless economically important reserves. China has chiefly high-grade coal reserves. Every province has at least one coalfield, but the largest reserves are in Shanxi and Shaanxi in the Ordos River basin in the north. Sichuan, Shandong, and the Northeast (Fushun, in Liaoning province) are old coal-producing regions with good reserves, and a coal-mining area with large deposits has been developed in central Anhui, north of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang). Mines in Ningxia and Gansu supply northern industrial plants, but their reserves are not clearly known.

Enormous coal reserves are found in North and Central Asia, and some 200 fields have been worked throughout the region. Most of the known coal supplies of North Asia lie in Siberia, but the total extent and quality of Siberian deposits have not been fully explored. sources of better coals began to be worked in western Siberia. The Ekibastuz field, north of the main Qaraghandy fields, also is a producer of high-quality coal. Smaller deposits also are worked in Uzbekistan, as well as in the valleys of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Natural gas and petroleum

At least two-thirds of the world’s known crude oil and natural gas reserves are found in Asia; the proportion may prove higher as Siberia, the Caspian basin, and the seas of southeastern Asia are further explored. Many of the island chains bordering eastern Asia have geologic formations favoring petroleum accumulation, and oil fields—both on land and offshore—are in production in the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java, and Borneo and in China, Brunei, and Malaysia. Western Asia has the largest known oil reserves, located in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Other regions in Southwest Asia have limited amounts of oil, but significant deposits of natural gas were discovered in Bangladesh during the 1990s.

Malaysia is the only important oil-producing area on the mainland of Southeast Asia; although offshore waters may yield production after further exploration, Vietnam also has some offshore potential. The area of the South China Sea has been actively tested but disputes among the surrounding countries about sovereignty over the Spratly Islands has inhibited development. The Philippines is negligible as a producing region while Japan has a small petroleum production. North and South Korea have virtually no prospects of production while China has a number of oil-producing fields in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Xinjiang and in the Northeast. The Qaidam Basin in northwestern Qinghai province also is a producing region.

In addition to producing more natural gas than Southwest Asia, Siberia also produces significant amounts of oil. There are several large oil and gas fields along the Ural Mountains’ flanks. It is possible for the entire Ob River basin to yield natural gas, based on the rich gas field in the northern Ob River basin at Berezovo. It is also possible to find large amounts of gas in the Lena River basin north of Yakutsk.

Baku’s oil derricks

Azerbaijan and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia also possess large deposits of oil and natural gas. Much of this is centred in the Caspian basin, particularly in areas claimed by Azerbaijan. The capital, Baku, has become a new world centre for oil exploration. The reserves, which the former Soviet Union hardly noticed, may prove to be substantial. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan share in Caspian output. Uzbekistan has a major gas field at Gazli in the Kyzylkum Desert southeast of the Aral Sea and oil fields in the southeastern part of the country. Although the landlocked region is not as remote as Siberia, its oil and gas producers have debated whether to export production to the world market through Russia or to build pipelines across Iran to the Persian Gulf, across the politically unstable Caucasus region to the Black Sea, or to the Mediterranean ports of Turkey.

The uranium element

The richest uranium ore deposits are located in Kyrgyzstan, between Osh and Tuya Muyun, while China and India also have their own deposits. The Chinese are believed to have uranium reserves in northern Xinjiang and southern Hunan.

The iron

Some regions of Asia have deposits of iron ore, although not every country has its own domestic supply. South Korea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and several smaller countries in Southwest Asia appear to have small iron ore supplies. Japan has far less than is needed by its large iron and steel industry and depends largely on imported supplies. The Philippines exports ore. Malaysia produces a considerable volume. Thailand, Myanmar, and Pakistan have fair amounts of relatively low-grade ores. Vietnam and Turkey have good ores in substantial volume. Indonesia and India both have large deposits of good iron ores that are reasonably distributed.

Although China formerly was regarded as deficient in iron ores, huge quantities of varying grades of ores have been discovered that are widely distributed and often located close to coal supplies. Regional centres of ore mining, smelting, and fabrication are located at Anshan in Liaoning province; near Beijing; in southern Anhui, west of Shanghai; in central China, east of Wuhan; in southern Inner Mongolia, north of Baotou; in central western Gansu; and on Hainan Island, off the southern coast. Large iron ore deposits also occur near Chongqing. Iron ore in small local volumes is widely located in Guizhou and Yunnan in the southwest.

As long as the Ural Mountains were mined for iron ore, there was a virtually unlimited supply of low-grade ore in the Qostanay Basin east of the Southern Urals in northwestern Kazakhstan and southwestern Siberia. Near the Cheremkhovo coal deposits in northern Kazakhstan, large deposits of medium-grade ore were located northwest of Lake Baikal. Central Asia’s main deposits are located in eastern Kazakhstan. Smaller deposits have also been found in eastern Siberia.

Metals made from ferroalloys

There is a notable ore field at Norilsk, in north-central Siberia; Indonesia, China, and the Philippines also possess reserves and produce substantial quantities of nickel. Asian countries with reserves of chromium include Turkey, the Philippines, India, Iran, and Pakistan; reserves are also found in northwestern Kazakhstan. Manganese is found in abundance, with large reserves in Transcaucasia, Central Asia, Siberia, and India; Chinese reserves also are considerable. Southern China has exceptionally large deposits of tungsten. Tungsten reserves in Central Asia also are important, as are those of molybdenum.

Base metals that are nonferrous

Asia does not have a lot of copper reserves. The main sites are Olmaliq, southeast of Tashkent (Uzbekistan); Zhezkazgan, west of Qaraghandy; and Qongyrat, on Lake Balkhash (Kazakhstan). In Siberia, production is mainly from the Kuznetsk Basin. Japan’s once widespread copper ore reserves are no longer worked, and the Philippines has limited reserves. China has deposits in Gansu, Hebei, Anhui, and Hubei, but production is insignificant. Turkey, Myanmar, Malaysia, Mongolia, India, and North Korea have small reserves.

As a north-south axis runs from southwestern China through the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, significant reserves of tin exist. Tin deposits are also found in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Yunnan province in China. There are substantial tin deposits in Transbaikal and Sikhote-Alin Mountains in Siberia.

China has abundant deposits of zinc and lead ores, and North Korea has significant lead resources. The Kuznetsk Basin of Siberia holds the largest reserves of lead and zinc in Asia.

Kazakhstan and south-central Siberia have the largest reserves of bauxite in the Sayan Mountains, as well as India, Indonesia, Turkey, Malaysia, and China.

South-central China and Siberia have large mercury deposits. Magnesite is common in Asia, as is antimony, which is found in large quantities in Turkey and Thailand.

Metals of precious value

Many Asian countries have produced gold from alluvial stream deposits in past centuries, and some continue to do so. A small volume of alluvial gold is produced in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Indonesia, and the headwaters of the Yangtze River in the Tibetan border region yield some gold. India formerly was a large producer of gold from lode mines, but the best ores appear to have been exhausted. North and South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines have significant gold ore reserves and periodically produce gold from small lode mines.

Gold has been produced from Siberian lode mines in the Central Ural Mountains for centuries, and in the 19th century there were several gold rushes to work alluvial stream deposits farther east on the Lena and Yenisey rivers. Recently, however, Siberian gold production is considerable, with lodes being worked in several locations including the upper reaches of the Kolyma River in the northeast. In addition, platinum is mined near Norilsk in the Central Siberian Plateau in northern Siberia. Another major lode is found at Auezov, south of Semey in eastern Kazakhstan.

Minerals that are not metallic

Reserves of asbestos, mica, rock salt, sulfur, and gypsum are abundant in Asia. Diamonds are produced in east-central Siberia and in India. India and Sri Lanka are significant producers of rubies, sapphires, and many semiprecious stones, such as moonstones and agates. Myanmar and Cambodia also have important supplies of rubies, sapphires, and other gems.

Resources related to water

Water is an important resource for irrigating crops in many Asian regions that are either arid (as in much of Central and Southwest Asia), subject to long dry seasons because of pronounced monsoonal (seasonal) variation in rainfall (as in much of South and Southeast Asia), or subject to seasonal high water and floods (for example, from the spring snowmelt in Siberia, the Himalayas, and the mountains of Central Asia). Regions such as Indonesia are particularly susceptible to longer-term climate variation, such as that caused by El Niño.

The management of water has been a prime focus of Asian peoples since the earliest civilizations were established on the continent; the Islamic tradition of building a garden in the desert, complete with splashing fountains, is perhaps the most graphic expression of this. Despite the fact that ever-larger dams have been built, opponents have become increasingly concerned about the harm they can cause to the environment and society.

Because of the low falls and enormous flow volume created by damming Siberian rivers, they have a tremendous potential for hydroelectricity. The extreme cold temperatures of winter freeze lakes and streams and keep water levels low for much of the year, making it difficult to exploit them. Due to the abundant precipitation and great differences in water levels in eastern Siberia, the Far East has an immense generating potential, but industrialization has been discouraged due to its remoteness.

East Asia’s waterpower potential varies by region. Japan, a mountainous country whose short rivers have steep drops but relatively small volumes of water flow, has already harnessed much of its hydroelectric potential; generating capacity, however, is increased by heavy rains, particularly in summer. The waterpower potential of China south of the Qin (Tsinling) Mountains is great.

The Yangtze River has considerable waterpower potential. The Three Gorges Dam project on the central Yangtze near Yichang, which officially began in 1994 and was largely completed in 2006, has been the largest and most ambitious attempt to harness this potential. The dam created a vast reservoir and locks that facilitate ship transport upstream and is intended to control the river’s periodic flooding. The dam also has the capacity to generate 22,500 megawatts of hydroelectricity. However, the project attracted considerable controversy. Flooding the river basin submerged numerous cities, towns, and villages and several sites of archaeological and cultural interest, and it necessitated resettling more than a million people in a region with a shortage of available land.

The hydroelectric and irrigation potential in South Asia also varies by region. In Pakistan nearly all agriculture depends on the Indus River and its tributaries in the Punjab, and the waters of the Indus basin are highly regulated, with numerous barrages and canals providing water for irrigation. The Western Ghats, which slope down abruptly to the western maritime plains, would theoretically allow dams to harness water flowing down the steep slope; however, the rivulets that rise on the summit have an insignificant volume of flow in winter. Rivers on the eastern slope of the Deccan plateau, such as the Mahanadi and the Godavari, lend themselves to the construction of low dams with great volumes of flow, as also do the Himalayan rivers entering the Gangetic Plain. Nearly all of the highly seasonal rivers of peninsular India have been dammed. One exception was the Narmada River, where work began in 1990s on first in a series of 30 large dams. Construction of these dams has been vigorously opposed by environmentalists both within India and internationally.

The Himalayan ranges represent one of the world’s greatest “water towers,” with rich possibilities for utilizing steep drops for generating hydroelectricity. During the summer monsoon, the heaviest precipitation on Earth falls there on the highest mountains. Nepal has a vast theoretical hydroelectric potential. Environmentalists worry that earthquakes in this seismically active region could cause the dams to fail. Some also argue that large dams might themselves instigate earthquakes, because the weight of the water in reservoirs could press on faults in the mountains and because water under pressure lubricates faults. Engineers, however, believe that they can address these problems. However, there is an obstacle to such development: the fact that the Ganges (Ganga)–Brahmaputra basin spans five countries—China, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. Power, irrigation water, and flood control would benefit India and Bangladesh most, but the sites of the projects would be mostly in Nepal and Bhutan.

Again, development has been stalled by regional political difficulties in Southeast Asia; in arid West Asia water politics are highly serious, as shown by the tensions among Syria, Israel, and Jordan over the use of the Jordan River. Another dispute, between Iraq and Syria on the one hand and upstream Turkey on the other, concerns the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose headwaters lie in Turkey. Turkey had already built several dams, including the Atatürk Dam, on the two rivers, and construction has been underway on two more dams on the Euphrates, at Birecik and Kargamış, since the 1990s. Iraq and Syria have objected strongly to both projects because they feared that the water supply would be reduced, that they would not be able to control water-flow timing, and that the quality of water would be diminished. Concern was also raised that water issues might give rise to future armed conflicts within the region.

Resources of biological origin

Asia’s vastness and widely varying climatic conditions have produced the enormous diversity of life described in the discussions of plant and animal life. The distribution of economically valuable species, however, is highly uneven. In addition, even where there is water—and nowhere is water conservation pursued more carefully than in Asia—there are still many areas of undrained swamp. Conservationists, who believe these swamps are resources in their own right, hope that they will remain undrained.

Resources related to botany

Much of northern Siberia, south of the Arctic Circle, is covered by commercially exploitable coniferous and mixed forest. The great deciduous forests of northeastern India, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia contain teak and other valuable hardwoods, as well as bamboo. Mangrove forests line the waters of the Ganges and Irrawaddy deltas and many small stretches of coast along the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, and the Philippines. There are lowland areas in China where forest still exists but it has been reduced to insignificance due to agriculture. Japan has a significant amount of forest coverage relative to its population and area however much of that cover is planted forest. Interest in the genetic resources of the forests is increasing. India’s neem tree, for example, produces an insecticide, used by farmers for generations, that is now being exploited commercially.

Grasslands in uncultivated steppes and semideserts are also economically significant. They are the habitat of numerous animals important to humans, such as horses, and support significant livestock populations.

Resources for animals

Domestic animals—primarily sheep and goats, but also cattle, poultry, and pigs in agricultural areas—are the most economically important animal species. Hides, wool, and dairy products are of great economic significance in many areas. In Central Asia, the horse and the yak traditionally are the riding animal and the beast of burden, respectively; in Arabia, the camel is both. Reindeer herds are kept in the northern tundra of Siberia, where they feed on mosses and shrubs. In India cattle are especially prized as sources of milk and butter, and oxcarts are still ubiquitous in rural areas. In India, Myanmar, and Thailand elephants work as draft animals in the lumbering industry; particularly in Southeast Asia water buffalos are an important draft animal as well as a source for milk and butter.

The fur-bearing mammals of Siberia have long been hunted as part of Asia’s wild animal populations. A variety of game birds are found north of the Himalayas, including ptarmigans, grouse, plover, and waterfowl. Game birds are taken south of the Himalayas, including pigeons and pheasants. In Arabia and other parts of Asia, hawks and falcons are trained to hunt.

Fish and other sea creatures and various kinds of crustaceans and mollusks are heavily exploited by the populations of East and Southeast Asia, as well as coastal areas of India, Bangladesh, and Thailand for shrimp farming on a large scale. Numerous freshwater species—such as the sturgeon in the Caspian Sea and the rivers of Siberia, which is prized for its caviar—are also commercially significant, although the Caspian is threatened with polluted water from the Volga and by contaminants and spills from the oil industry. The Indus has its own species of blind dolphin, and the great rivers of South Asia are home to the giant mahseer fish, threatened by pollution, overfishing, and habitat loss.

Gourou, Pierre Leinbach, Thomas R.Chapman, Graham P.

Development of resources

Until the end of World War II and the beginning of the process of decolonization in Asia, most Asian countries were not free to develop their own natural resources independently and without reference to the economic interest of a colonial power or to cultural attitudes.

Technology can also affect the value of natural resources. For example, if a new technology is used to produce cereals, a greater amount of yield can be achieved from the same area of land. Modern technology has also enabled improvements in a wide variety of other fields, such as silk production and cultured pearl production in Japan. As a result of technology, mineral wealth previously inaccessible or juxtaposed with other minerals may be exploitable.

The mining industry

Asia extracts an immense wealth of minerals, of which its mineral fuels—coal, petroleum, and natural gas—are of greatest value. The largest Asian coal producers are China and Russia (Siberia), followed by India, Kazakhstan, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. Coal is mined in a number of other countries as well; the Arab countries of Southwest Asia collectively are the principal producers of petroleum in the world. The major Middle Eastern mines are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, and Iraq. Petroleum is principally produced in Siberia, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Natural gas is supplied principally from Siberia and Central Asia republics.

The largest producers of iron ore and ores for ferroalloys are China, Siberia, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, and North Korea. Together these six account for almost all of the ore mined on the continent. India and China are among the major world producers of manganese ore and between them account for virtually all of Asia’s output. Asia’s biggest producer of chromite is Kazakhstan, followed by Turkey, India, and Iran. Some tungsten is mined in China, Central Asia, North and South Korea, Thailand, and Myanmar. Nickel is extracted in Indonesia, Siberia, China, and the Philippines. Central Asia has become an increasingly important producer of many of the ferroalloys.

In addition to providing more than half of the world’s total output of tin-in-concentrates (i.e., tin ore partially processed to increase its tin content), Asia is one of the largest producers. China, Indonesia, and Malaysia are among the most important producers of Asian tin. In addition, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia produce substantial quantities of copper ore.

A small portion of all world bauxite is produced in Asia, and China, India, Siberia, and Kazakhstan are the most important Asian producers. The world’s largest gold producers are China and Siberia, followed by Uzbekistan and the Philippines. More than half of the world’s graphite is produced in Asia, mainly by China and South Korea.

Fisheries, forestry, and animal husbandry

Especially Japan, industrialized and timber-deficient countries export logs from China, Siberia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar. A number of special varieties of timber are produced in Thailand and Myanmar, such as teak. Thai teak is exported throughout the world as well. There are several major producers of commercial hardwoods in the world, including Malaysia and Indonesia. Philippine forests still produce valuable hardwoods, including the soft “Philippine mahogany.”

A wide variety of wood species can be found in the vast forestland of Siberia, from pine around the Bratsk area to a mixture of pine, larch, aspen, birch, and other species south of Lake Baikal. A road-building program has helped facilitate logging and transportation operations, which are highly mechanized.

In tropical areas of Southeast Asia, bamboo plays an important role in wet-evergreen, moist-deciduous, and dry-deciduous forests. Most of the genera found in tropical parts are represented by different species at higher elevations and in temperate climates of Asia, such as in Bhutan, China, Japan, and Nepal, while others are common in China and Japan. In Myanmar, Bangladesh, and other areas, bamboo forests are commonly found on slopes where temporary cultivation has been practiced.

The exploitation of Asian fisheries has increased during the late 20th century. Japan has created a well-organized fishing fleet that can go nearly anywhere in search of catches, although some accuse it of environmental insensitivity because the techniques used to catch tunas also kill many dolphins and turtles. Freezing and canning fish products have allowed international trade to increase dramatically. In some countries freshwater fish are an important component of the diet of people living near the coast; raising fish in culturally controlled ponds is significant in southern China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Fish from big delta regions such as the Ganges in Bangladesh provide local populations with a valuable source of protein. Overall, China captures the world’s greatest tonnage; however, Thailand has become one of the world’s most important fish exporters, largely because of its shrimp and prawn farming.

raising sheep and goats for meat and wool is especially important in China, India, Pakistan, and Iran; these animals also are raised in nearly all the other countries of Asia, although the sheep population of Southeast Asia is small.

While dairying is important in a few areas such as India, Pakistan, Central Asia, and Turkey, there is little large-scale beef-cattle farming; the Central Asian republics, however, have attempted to develop such patterns. While China and Japan have discarded their traditional avoidance of milk products, both countries have growing urban dairy industries. China, the world’s largest producer of pork, is the principal producer in Asia. With Japan a distant second, The poultry industry has made rapid strides. Feed availability for poultry is one of the major factors limiting the sector’s growth and development. Straw obtained from rice crops is the primary fodder for livestock in southern Asia with cattle feed usually supplemented by concentrates such as oil cake.

The production of hides and skins from the region is only slowly reaching international levels, despite the large number of cattle and sheep. Many tanneries need to improve the quality of flaying and curing.

Asia’s agriculture

Large areas of Asia remain uncultivated, primarily because the climate and soils are unfavourable. However, in the best growing areas an extraordinarily intensive agriculture is practiced, with irrigation from the great river deltas and valleys. The most important crops cultivated are rice, sugarcane, and sugar beets, which require the most water. Other crops that can be grown even on land watered only by natural precipitation are legumes, root crops, and cereals other than rice.

Technology in agriculture

The traditional method of irrigation in Asia is by gravity water flow, with the water from upstream storage reservoirs or diversion dams being carried through canals to field distributaries. In some systems, the fields adjoin one another, and the water is able to flow from one field to the next; however, it may take some time for the water to move across the fields back to the canal system. The disadvantages of this system include water loss by evaporation and seepage, as well as the possibility that the continuously flowing water will carry with it soil nutrients, fertilizers, and pesticides. In Japan and Taiwan, small electric pumps operate continuously during the growing seasons.

Increasing attention has been paid to pumping underground water. In India, Pakistan, and Iran, both ordinary pumps and deep-bore well turbine pumps have become common. In addition to avoiding some of the disadvantages of flow irrigation, this irrigation allows for easier drainage.

The most important modern development in Asian agriculture has been the adoption of new high-yielding strains of cereals, which has led to increased yields per acre for cereals since the late 1960s. This improved yield can be attributed to partnership between international organizations, such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and national agricultural research stations. Thus, in the case of rice, countries have adapted the IRRI strains to local conditions and have implemented their own seed improvement programs and extension (advisory) services to farmers. Access to a reliable water supply has been crucial to the new agricultural technology, which has also required using fertilizer in conjunction with the improved cereal seeds that have been developed. Huge irrigation projects in southern Siberia, Central Asia, and Pakistan have been rapidly altering traditional agricultural patterns.

Crops of importance

Grains and cereals

Indonesian rice paddies

Planting rice

The staple food crop for most Asians is rice. Asia produces around 90% of the world’s total supply of rice, with the exception of a few Middle Eastern countries and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Siberia, Central Asia, and Malaysia. Rice occupies a lot of land area in Asia, ranging from one-fourth to half in most countries outside the Middle East, Central Asia, and Siberia. Despite this however many countries are not self-sufficient in rice such as Thailand, Pakistan, and Vietnam. These three countries are notable exporters of rice.

The black-earth (chernozem) belt across southern Siberia is cultivated with several grains, of which wheat is the most important. Wheat is also the dominant crop in Central Asia (notably Kazakhstan), the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Grain crops, chiefly wheat, are cultivated in North China—where soybeans are also grown—and in Japan. Barley is grown in China and India, among other countries. Corn (maize) is raised in China, Siberia, Central Asia, India, the Philippines, Thailand, North Korea, and other countries. India, China, Pakistan, and Central Asia also grow sorghum and millet.

Vegetables and fruits

The continent produces a variety of tropical and subtropical fruit, mainly for domestic consumption. Transport facilities, where available, are usually used only for a limited distance. In view of the climatic conditions and the general lack of refrigerated transport, consumption tends to be seasonal and confined to areas close to centres of production. Among the main varieties of fruit produced are bananas, mangoes, apples, oranges and other citrus fruits, pineapples, papayas, and some specialities such as mangosteen (a dark reddish brown fruit), litchi (a grape-shaped fruit in a brittle red rind), and durian (a large oval fruit with a prickly rind, a soft pulp, and a distinctive odour). Citrus fruit is usually produced in the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea or in Transcaucasia. Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia export bananas to Japan.

Canning surplus fruit has only been developed to a limited extent, except in a few countries that grow and can pineapples for export, such as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia. It is possible to increase exports of fruits and fruit juices due to the enormous potential for greater fruit production.

Producing vegetables is influenced by the same factors. As a result, vegetables are primarily grown for local consumption, and tubers are the only vegetables that can be transported long distances and stored. Both mushrooms and asparagus have become leading exports in Taiwan thanks to canning success.

Crops with cash value

Trees made of rubber

Asia is noted for several plantation crops, of which the most important are tea, rubber, palm oil, coconuts, and sugarcane. Jute, a commercial fibre, though it has decreased in significance, remains a major export crop of Bangladesh. Cotton is important to the states of Central Asia and is also a major crop in India and Pakistan. Rubber was brought to Asia from Brazil in the 19th century; the major producers are Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, with lesser amounts from India, China, and the Philippines. Palm oil has become important in Indonesia and Malaysia. Tea is grown on commercial plantations in the uplands of India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia; and China, Taiwan, and Japan produce several types of tea on smallholdings. Coconuts are an important crop in the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka. India grows primarily for domestic use whereas China produces for both domestic consumption and export. Tobacco is grown widely in China, India, Turkey, Central Asia,, Pakistan,, and Indonesia. Date palms are cultivated particularly in the Arabian Peninsula. Licorice is grown in Turkey

Asia’s manufacturing

Industrial development in Asia has been remarkable since the end of World War II. Most spectacular was Japan’s emergence as a global manufacturing superpower in the first postwar decades, but more recently the focus has been on countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Nevertheless, Asia’s industrial output is still far less than its proportion of world population. Although heavy industry has been important to the economies of the larger Asian countries, light manufacturing has been more conspicuous. In the lesser-developed and newly industrialized countries, labour-intensive industries have remained the most important. Medium-technology industries have been significant in many Asian economies regardless of their stage of development, with Unequal regional development a political problem in large countries such as China and India. Parts of western India are developing rapidly, while the east stagnates; similarly, China’s prosperous coastal belt is outstripping inland areas.

Engineering and heavy industry

The wide variety of mineral resources in Asia provides the basis for several metallurgical industries, some of which are based on local resources while others, such as with Japan’s steel industry, rely on imported ores. The major producers of steel are China and Japan, respectively first and second in the world; other important steel producers in Asia are Siberia, South Korea, India, Taiwan, and Turkey. Japan, China, South Korea, India, and Taiwan are the major steel consumers, although the consumption of steel is increasing in other countries. Japan, China, and India also are the region’s leading producers of metallurgical coke.

Asia’s leading aluminum producers include China, Russia, India, and Bahrain. Copper, zinc, lead, and tin are also produced in Asia, with China and Japan leading in the production of zinc and lead and Malaysia leading in the production of tin. Tin is consumed most by Japan, China, and India.

Japan produces every variety of engineering goods, from tankers and locomotives to miniaturized electronic equipment. Since World War II, India has also gradually diversified its engineering industries and now produces heavy capital goods (machines and tools used to manufacture other goods), various types of industrial machinery, prime movers (engines and other sources of motive power) and boilers, diesel engines, sewing machines, machine tools, agricultural machinery, and all types of electrical equipment. In addition, India produces radio receivers, metal manufactures, railway rolling stock, automobiles, bicycles, and precision instruments. China has also made considerable progress in the field of engineering industries. Other Asian countries have primarily concentrated on producing durable consumer goods. Manufacturing based on computer hardware, software, and information processing has grown fast in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and South Korea and has also established fast-growing enclaves in India—particularly around Bangalore and Mumbai (Bombay).

Petrochemicals and chemicals

Nitrogenous and phosphatic fertilizers have greatly increased in Asia, largely because additional countries have begun to use the advanced techniques and improved seeds that have become available. Major consumers of fertilizers, per acre of arable land, have been Japan and South Korea. Because of their vast size and the increased use of fertilizers, India and China are, in absolute terms, among the major consumers. Production of ammonium sulfate has also been increased in Asia, especially in Indonesia.

Asia’s main sources of natural gas and crude oil lie in the Persian Gulf region, western Siberia and Central Asia, while China, Malaysia, and Indonesia have the continent’s petrochemical industry more widely distributed. The leading centres of petrochemical manufacturing in Asia are Japan, China, and Siberia. Saudi Arabia refines slightly more petroleum than South Korea which imports nearly all of its crude oil and natural gas. Other countries with significant petrochemical industries are India Iran, Indonesia, Singapore, the smaller Persian Gulf countries Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.

Caustic soda, soda ash, and sulfuric acid are also produced and consumed in Asia; Japan and China are the leading producers.

Manufacturing of textiles and other light goods

The textile industries, particularly cotton, have expanded greatly in Asia since World War II. China (including Hong Kong) is the world’s largest exporter of cotton textiles; Pakistan is another major exporter, while Japan, India, South Korea, Turkey, and Bangladesh also are prominent in the international market. The industry produces cotton yarn, cloth, and finished garments. There is also some processing of wool (both yarn and woven fabrics) in the region. China, Japan, India, and Turkey are among the main producers and consumers; China is Asia’s chief producer of woolen fabrics. South Korea, Japan, and India also have become major producers of woven rayon and acetate fabrics.

Most Asian countries continue to rely heavily on industries based on processing agricultural products, such as canning, food and beverage processing, and footwear manufacturing. In part due to higher living standards, pulp and paper consumption has steadily increased throughout the continent. China, Japan, Siberia, and India are the top buyers, and China, Japan, Siberia, and India are the top producers. Feedstocks include grasses and bamboos as well as timber.

Pharmaceutical manufacture has become important in different countries throughout the world. In Japan, for example, pharmaceutical development is comparable to that found in Western Europe and the United States; whereas in many of the other Asian countries, pharmaceutical manufacture consists of only fabricating products from basic drugs, which are then marketed domestically or exported.


Traditional cottage industries and handicrafts play an important role in the economies of all Asian countries. They constitute major manufacturing activities in themselves and also often provide additional employment and raise the level of living for both rural and urban populations. Significant improvements were made in marketing these products during the 1990s in wealthy countries. Some have raised ethical questions about the use of child labour in some of these industries, such as carpet making in South Asia.

The energy

The per capita consumption of energy in Asia outside the oil-producing countries of the Middle East is considerably lower than the world average, with China being by far the largest producer in Asia. While Japan produces about half as much, it consumes more energy than China in per capita terms. India produces slightly less energy than Japan, but, with its vast population, its per capita consumption is much lower. In China and India coal is the dominant source of energy for generating electricity, but in both countries about one-sixth of the electricity supply comes from hydroelectric sources. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both largely depend on hydropower from the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges, and Sri Lanka also relies heavily on hydropower. Japan and South Korea are the only countries in Asia where a substantial portion of the electricity (about one-third) comes from nuclear power. China and India have nuclear power plants, but they contribute little to national supplies.

In Asia, geothermal power is most developed in Siberia with plants at Makhachkala, Lake Baikal, and Kamchatka; Uzbekistan has a plant in Tashkent; and Japan has two smaller plants. Only the Philippines uses geothermal power in Asia. There are also small gas-turbine generators in many countries. Pakistan uses natural gas for both thermal and gas turbine generation. Bangladesh is increasing its electricity generation from domestic gas supplies.


The service sector has grown markedly in Asia since the mid-20th century, and in most countries it now constitutes the most important component of the economy. Service activities account for some three-fifths or more of the gross domestic product (GDP) of economically advanced countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore and exceed half of the GDP in countries such as South Korea and Thailand. In China, the service sector’s proportion of the GDP jumped dramatically after the country reacquired sovereignty over Hong Kong and Macau, both with economies that are based largely on services. Banking and other financial activities have grown significantly in importance, and Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, and other major Asian cities have become integral parts of the global banking system; nearly all such cities also have stock exchanges.

Beach resort in India

There have been increases not only in the number of non-Asian visitors but also in the number of Asian travelers within Asia. The Japanese in particular have been avid tourists in Asia, notably in Southeast Asian countries.

Asia’s trade

Background information

Trade between Asia and Europe expanded considerably during the Greek era. This east-west trade flourished in the first four centuries CE but was subject to considerable vicissitudes in later centuries.

After Spain and Portugal, in the 15th century, became interested in discovering a direct sea route to Asia—an interest that led to the European discovery of the Western Hemisphere—the era of the great circumnavigators arrived in the 16th century. Portugal was one of the first countries to attempt to establish a monopoly over the lucrative spice trade with the East, and it founded a network of trading outposts in Asia. Meanwhile, Spain established control over the Philippines. The Dutch and British started similar enterprises at the beginning of the 17th century, each country establishing its own East India company. The British began by centring their activities on the Indian subcontinent and extended their control to Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Malaysia. While the Dutch first concentrated on Ceylon but later expanded into and concentrated on Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, the French were able to establish only minor footholds on the Indian subcontinent, but their 19th-century penetration of the Indochinese Peninsula was more successful. Over time these European trading companies developed into colonial empires.

The East India companies of Europe came seeking the exotic products of Asia: silks, cottons, and precious commodities such as spices and aromatic products. These products required the skilled labor of weavers and farmers or unique soils and climates of the region.

Generally speaking, the colonial countries became the exporters of raw materials and imported the finished products from their colonial rulers. For example, Britain ceased importing finished cotton goods from India and instead imported raw cotton to be spun and woven in the new industrial mills. Cotton cloth was then exported back to India, where local weavers lost their employment. Steel products from cutlery to railway locomotives were exported to Asian countries from Europe; during that period tea and tobacco also entered into international trade, and jute became a monopoly product of the Indian subcontinent. After British went to war with China to block Chinese efforts to ban opium imports, opium was traded legally by British merchants from India to China and was a source of tax revenue for the government of India.

The latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th constituted the heyday of colonial rule. By the first decade of the 20th century, Japan had emerged as a major military and naval power, and it gradually developed into an important trading partner with the rest of the world. Less than two decades after World War II, the great British, French, and Dutch empires had virtually ceased to exist in Asia.

After independence many countries in Asia sought to develop their own industries to produce substitutes for their former imports. This happened under both socialist and nonsocialist regimes. A few countries—Japan the most notable among them—lacking natural resources but endowed with an educated labour force, opted for promoting new industrial production for export instead of import substitution. In general this strategy has paid off better, particularly for Japan and the “four tigers”—Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. At the beginning of the 21st century nearly all countries were responding to globalization by promoting exports and opening domestic markets to international competition to varying degrees. Such liberalization exposed those economies to the volatility of international markets, and there were major currency collapses and episodes of capital flight in the late 1990s. Although most Asian economies had begun to recover by 2000, there was still a legacy of unemployment, poverty, and resentment for many.

Patterns of contemporary trade

In view of the division of labour that existed between the colonial countries and the metropolitan powers in colonial days, it is not surprising that until the 1970s the economies of the independent countries of Asia often were more competitive than complementary. For some countries intraregional exports have amounted to only a small fraction of total exports. However, in East and Southeast Asia intraregional trade has grown in importance. Japan has assumed a prominent role in Asian trade, and South Korea, China, and Taiwan have also traded more heavily with other Asian countries. Because many of the countries of East and Southeast Asia have maintained substantial trade surpluses and because those regions as a whole have been net exporters, many of those countries have derived most of their imports from other Asian countries, while their main export market has often been outside the region.

The largest producer of rice in the world is Asia, and rice remains an important commodity of intraregional trade. Thailand, Pakistan, and Vietnam all export rice.

The countries of Transcaucasia and Central Asia, members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, have steadily increased trade with the countries of the European Union and with Turkey and Iran. However, those countries also trade largely within the former Soviet bloc as a result of both history and location.

There has been an ongoing effort on the part of Asian countries to improve their trading position by joining organizations of commodity producers. Among these are the International Sugar Agreement, the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, and the International Tea Committee. These organizations were created to help stabilize prices for primary products produced in Asia and exported around the world. The most prominent and successful of these groups is OPEC, which includes the major oil-producing countries of Southwest Asia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) fosters joint economic ventures among its member states and has worked to reduce trade barriers. Although some consider it the most successful of the Asian regional blocs, intrabloc trade accounts for less than one-third of its members’ exports. Trade between India and Pakistan, which could be of great mutual benefit, has been hampered by poor political relations between the two countries. There are some hopes that the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation will be able to implement a South Asian Free Trade Area by 2015, although commerce between member countries remains small. The Gulf Cooperation Council embraces members from around the Persian Gulf. Trade within the bloc has not grown much, because the economies are too similar. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation has been more successful, but this group is intercontinental, not strictly Asian; it includes the middle-income countries of Southeast and East Asia as well as Pacific-coast countries in both North and South America.

Apart from the countries of Central Asia, most other Asian countries now earn more from exports of manufactured goods than from any raw commodity.

Asia’s transportation system

Great Bridge of Seto

Until the 19th century, the land, or caravan, routes, supplemented by oceangoing vessels, were predominant. In the latter half of the 19th century there was a major shift to seagoing vessels. Rail and road transport has become important for moving passengers within individual states and for transporting bulk goods over longer distances. Concurrently, there has been considerable development of ports and harbours—including container facilities in the larger ports—which have been linked to their hinterlands by rail and road. Air transport has proved to be not only the fastest but also often the cheapest means of transport, especially for costly items of relatively small weight and bulk. Air transport has played a particularly important role in landlocked countries—such as Afghanistan, Nepal, and Laos—and in the opening up of relatively inaccessible and fragmented areas, such as Indonesia.

As roads and highways have been expanded in most Asian countries, diesel trucks, buses, and jeeps have replaced draft animals for internal traffic. For short distances, motorbikes and motorcycles have also become more common in many areas. In large cities in the poorer regions, draft animals (mainly oxen or buffalo) are still used to transport carts where roads are unpaved or poorly maintained.

Inland navigation is important in certain countries; a good river and canal system is capable of carrying goods and passengers at small cost over considerable distances. Among the countries with well-developed inland water transport systems are Bangladesh, the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, China, India, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam. There are also great riverine ports such as Kolkata (Calcutta) in India, Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar, Bangkok in Thailand, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Oceangoing ships can navigate the Mekong River to inland ports such as Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, and can sail up the Yangtze River to Wuhan, China. Ultimately it may be possible to connect even Laos with the sea by improving navigation facilities on the Mekong. The Yangtze, Sungari, and Xi rivers of China provide a wide network of routes for motorized barges supplementing traditional water transport.

A number of pipelines have been constructed to move petroleum products, especially in Southwest Asia, western Siberia, and the Caucasus region. Some pipelines have considerable advantages, such as economy and speed, but they also have the disadvantage of being subject to sabotage and political vicissitudes when they cross international boundaries. For example, the war between Russian troops and rebels in Chechnya was partly about control over possible pipeline routes between the Caspian and Black seas.