The Republic of the Marshall Islands consists of two archipelagos of 29 atolls and five low coral islands. There are two island chains, the eastern Ratak (Sunrise) and western Ralik (Sunset), which lie about 200 kilometres apart. They are roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii.
The total land area of the Marshall Islands is only 180 square kilometres, but the country has an exclusive economic zone of more than 1.2 million square kilometres of ocean. There is little fertile topsoil and no rivers, but there is extensive marine life in the reefs and lagoons of the atoll and sandy islands. The highest point is a small hill of 10 metres on Likiep Island, but the average height above sea level is 2 metres.
The tropical climate means it is hot and humid for most of the year, but it is wet and slightly cooler between May and November. In the capital, Majuro, the average daily temperature is 27 °C. Mild trade winds and tropical showers occur daily, but tropical storms and typhoons are rare.
The Marshall Islands are rich in marine life, with their surrounding waters providing a habitat for hundreds of species of coral, reef fish and all five of the world’s marine turtles species. Whales, dolphins and porpoises also visit the islands’ warm waters. Some 70 bird species have been identified, including over 30 species of sea birds. The Polynesian rat is the only mammal native to the islands, which are also home to half-a-dozen species of lizards and one species of blind snake. Coconut land crabs are common.
There is concern about the human impact on the environment through over-fishing, pollution from household waste and discharges from fishing vessels.
The Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site was used by the USA for nuclear testing following World War 2. It has World Heritage listing as a symbol of the emergence of the nuclear age.
Only 19 atolls and four islands are inhabited. Of the 52,555 people, 71% live in the urban centres of Majuro and Ebeye. The outer islands are sparsely populated due to a lack of economic development and employment opportunities.