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30 Geography Facts Everyone Keeps Getting Wrong

Updated: Dec. 09, 2022

These days, instead of studying atlases, we use the Internet. So it should come as no surprise that there are mountains of mistakes being made about the basic geography of the world. Get out your Google Maps for the 30 common errors that leave geography teachers in tears.

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Mistake: Antarctica has no time zones

It’s a common misconception that the frozen continent at the South Pole had no time zones. But as we know from the science stations located in various parts of the massive ice shelf, there are nine different time zones in use in Antarctica. This is the United States trivia your teacher never taught you.

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Mistake: Russia and Turkey are the only countries on two continents

You might think that Russia and Turkey are the only two countries that lie in two continents. But according to geologists, the Asia-Europe boundary is the Caucasus watershed, which means the border also cuts through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.

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Mistake: The Statue of Liberty is in New York

If you want to start an argument between New Yorkers and New Jerseyans, bring up this bone of contention. Even though the U.S. Geological Survey has placed Liberty Island in New York’s 8th Congressional District, the island actually resides in New Jersey’s waters, and is much closer to Jersey’s mainland than New York’s. Check out more wacky facts about the Statue of Liberty.

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Mistake: The Nile is the world’s longest river

That’s what it always said in our geography books, so this myth is pretty pervasive. But if you consider, as many studies do, the tributaries, multiple channels of a river, and cutoffs that eliminate longer river bends, the Amazon River beats out the Nile nowadays by a whisker—4,345 miles to 4,258. Most people get these U.S. state facts wrong. Can you beat the odds? 

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Mistake: The Mississippi River is the longest in the U.S.

The Mississippi may have Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But despite that fiction, the Missouri River has this fact: At 2,341 miles, it is it 139 miles longer than the Mighty Mississippi.

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Mistake: Maine is our easternmost state

Well, it was until 1959, when Alaska became a state and took over the title. How? The Aleutian Islands in Alaska cross over the 180th meridian, which means that the islands on the far side of the line are technically in the farthest eastern longitudes of the world. And the islands on this side of the line also make Alaska our westernmost state as well.

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Mistake: Florida is our southernmost state

The Florida Keys are a picturesque haven for tourists who flock to the southernmost geographical marker in Key West. But it’s the southernmost continental point. Hawaii, in fact, reaches down nearly to the 21st latitude, only 1,465 miles from the equator. See if you can pass this geography quiz. It’s a lot harder than you might think.

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Mistake: All 50 states have Daylight Saving Time

That would be dead wrong. Hawaiians don’t switch their clocks like most of the mainlanders. And Arizona chooses not to recognize DST either. And to complicate things further, Navajo tribal lands in Arizona do recognize the time change. So when in Arizona, check your bus schedules carefully.

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Mistake: Norway is the northernmost country in the world

Sorry to disappoint all you Norse scholars, but the Kingdom of Norway is only the fourth most northern nation. Russia, Canada, and Greenland all reach closer to the North Pole, with Greenland’s Kaffeklubben Island being the world’s most northern land.

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Mistake: Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the U.S.

Again, Mt. Whitney towered above all other peaks in the country until Alaska joined the union. Now Alaska has the top 10 mountains in the country, the tallest being Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) at 20,310 feet.

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Mistake: Route 66 is our longest highway

Sure, Nat King Cole made Route 66 famous with his song about “The highway that’s the best.” But while its name was easier to rhyme (“get your kicks on Route 66”), Route 66—or its modern equivalent I-40, pales next to Route 20, which runs coast to coast for 3,365 miles from Boston to Newport, Oregon.

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Mistake: Florida has the longest coastline of any state

It sounds true. After all, the whole state sticks out into the ocean, so it’s nothing but coastline, right? Yes, but according to the Congressional Research Service, Alaska has 6,640 miles of coastline compared to the Sunshine State’s 1,350. Bottom line: Alaska covers a whole lot of real estate.

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Mistake: Alaska has the smallest population of the 50 states

Once upon a time that was true. But according to a 2016 census estimate, Wyoming has the fewest residents, with just below 586,000, ranking it No. 50 in state populations. Vermont comes after that with about 625,000, while Alaska is 48th, having nearly 742,000 residents.

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Mistake: The world’s longest bridge is the Verrazano Narrows

Maybe it’s just our American pride in the bridge that’s the gateway to New York Harbor, but it’s not even close to being the world’s longest. That honor goes to the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge in Beijing, China, which stretches an amazing 102.4 miles as it carries the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway. In case you’re wondering, the Verrazano comes in at No. 149 on the list.

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Mistake: Orlando is the capital of Florida

It may be the theme-park capital of the country, but Orlando isn’t the capital of Florida. That would be Tallahassee, up near the Florida-Georgia line. Why such an out-of-the-way location? It was chosen because it was about half-way between St. Augustine and Pensacola, which had been the capitals of the Spanish territories of East Florida and West Florida. Can you answer these stumpers from the National Geography Bee?

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Mistake: Krakatoa is East of Java

Krakatoa, East of Java is the title of an exciting movie about the 1883 eruption that caused the loudest sound ever heard on earth. Trouble is, the volcano is off the west coast of Java. Didn’t anybody check this before they shot a whole movie about it?

17 / 30

Mistake: Kashmir may not be part of India

Discussing this will cause arguments and has even caused wars in that part of the world, and has for many years. At this point in time, India, Pakistan, and the People’s Republic of China all claim parts of the region, and there’s no agreed-upon border.

18 / 30

Mistake: The South Pole is in Antarctica

Well, this is right. But it’s also wrong, because there are four different South Poles on the continent: The Geographic South Pole (where the earth’s axis intersects Earth’s crust), the Inaccessible South Pole (where Antarctica is farthest from the shoreline), the Geomagnetic South Pole (where the geomagnetic field intersects the Earth’s surface), and the Magnetic South Pole (where Earth’s magnetic fields intersect the crust). To further confuse you, because of magnetic drift, the magnetic south pole is constantly moving.

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Mistake: Canada is the world’s largest country

Not even close. Russia is a massive 6,602,000 square miles, so big that it has 10 time zones. Canada is a distant second with 3,855,000 square miles, but with six time zones of its own, there’s a long gap in time between Vancouver in the west and St. John’s in Newfoundland. You probably never knew these facts about each of the 50 states.

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Mistake: The Matterhorn is Europe’s highest mountain

Switzerland’s picturesque peak may be the most visually striking mountain in the world, but it’s not even close to being the tallest in Europe. For that you have to look to Russia’s Mt. Elbrus, which rises to 18,510 feet in the Caucasus Mountains near the border with Georgia.

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Mistake: Toronto is the capital of Canada

Toronto is Canada’s financial and media center, and boasts some of the country’s most impressive cultural icons. It even has major league baseball. The only thing it doesn’t have is the capital of the country, which is a four-hour drive away in Ottawa, which in 2016 was rated the best place to live in Canada by MoneySense.

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Mistake: Africa is a country

Hardly. Africa is a continent containing an astonishing 54 countries, each with its own languages, cultures, and traditions. More and more the “Dark Continent” is coming into the light.

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Mistake: Geneva is the capital of Switzerland

Geneva and Zurich may have reputations as world cultural centers, but the capital is actually Bern, the country’s fifth largest city. It’s worth a visit, if only because every international visitor is given a Toblerone chocolate bar as a welcome gift.

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Mistake: Holland is a country

People have always used Holland and the Netherlands interchangeably. But they’re not the same. The Netherlands has 12 provinces, including North-Holland and South-Holland. But since the country’s major cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague are in these provinces, people tend to just skip the details and mistakenly call the low-lying country Holland. Everyone gets these U.S. state facts wrong. Do you know the right answers?

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Mistake: Greenland is bigger than Africa

We’re all familiar with Mercator Projections, those world maps from grade school that expand the poles to gigantic proportions. As a result, Greenland looks huge on those maps, while Africa looks fairly modest. In truth, it’s not even close. Africa is 11,730,000 square miles, while Greenland covers only 836,300 square miles.

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Mistake: Great Britain and the United Kingdom are the same

We have a special relationship with the United Kingdom, so we should probably learn that these terms are not interchangeable. The United Kingdom is a country that includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is only a part of that, specifically the island that consists of England, Scotland, and Wales.

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Mistake: Puerto Rico is a country

Maybe it’s the fact that Spanish is the island’s main language that makes picturesque Puerto Rico seem like a foreign country. But in fact it is a U.S. territory. But that could change going forward, as voters turned down the chance for statehood in 2012, and they will vote again on June 11, 2017. Stay tuned. Check out these places that have sadly been ruined by tourists.

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Mistake: Iceland is covered with ice

Despite its name, the small island nation in the North Atlantic is actually fairly mild. Thanks to the warm North Atlantic Current nearby, the coasts of Iceland remain ice-free all winter. Sure there are glaciers, but there are also geysers and lots of volcanic activity, such as the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010, which threw so much ash into the air that it stopped air travel across Europe for days.

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Mistake: Sydney is the capital of Australia

When Americans think of Australia, they picture the Sydney Opera House or the Sydney Olympics, so is it any wonder that we think the country’s largest city is also its capital? The capital is actually the city of Canberra, and it was chosen in 1908 as a compromise between Sydney and its rival city of Melbourne.

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Mistake: Lagos is the capital of Nigeria

This used to be true, but in 1991 the capital was moved to Abuja. There were at least two advantages to that move: Abuja is near the center of the country, and it’s the location of Wonderland, one of the country’s first amusement parks. Now, read up on these amazing facts your U.S. history teacher probably never taught you.