Australia, officially named the Commonwealth of Australia, is located in the Indian Ocean, with the Timor, Arafura, Coral and Tasman Seas surrounding it. Australia is the world's smallest continent but sixth-largest country; its population is concentrated along the eastern and southeastern coasts. The invigorating sea breeze known as the "Fremantle Doctor" affects the city of Perth on the west coast and is one of the most consistent winds in the world.
Australia's indigenous inhabitants, a hunting-gathering people collectively referred to today as Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders, arrived more than 40,000 years ago. Although their technical culture remained static--depending on wood, bone, and stone tools and weapons--their spiritual and social life was highly complex. Most spoke several languages, and confederacies sometimes linked widely scattered tribal groups. When Captain James Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain in 1770, the native population may have numbered 300,000 in as many as 500 tribes speaking many different languages. In 2006 the indigenous population was approximately 517,200, representing about 2.5% of the population.
The Government was created with a constitution patterned partly on the U.S. Constitution, although it does not include a "bill of rights." The powers of the Commonwealth are specifically defined in the constitution, and the residual powers remain with the states. Proposed changes to the Constitution must be approved by the Parliament and the people, via referendum. Australia is an independent nation within the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and since 1973 has been officially styled "Queen of Australia."
A number of U.S. institutions conduct scientific activities in Australia because of its geographical position, large land mass, advanced technology, and, above all, the ready cooperation of its government and scientists. In 2005, a bilateral science and technology agreement was renewed. Under another agreement dating back to 1960 and since renewed, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) maintains in Australia one of its largest and most important programs outside the United States, including a number of tracking facilities vital to the U.S. space program.
Current environmental issues include soil erosion from overgrazing, industrial development, urbanization, and poor farming practices; rising soil salinity due to the use of poor quality water; and desertification. Also, the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast, which is the largest coral reef in the world, is threatened by increased shipping and its popularity as a tourist site.
The terrain is varied, but generally low-lying. The climate is relatively dry and subject to drought, ranging from temperate in the south to tropical in the far north. Natural hazards include cyclones along the coast, severe droughts, and forest fires.
In February 2009, deadly wildfires spread across Australia killing people and destroying dozens of homes. These fires were caused by a severe heat wave affecting the country, combined with winds reported to have reached gale force.
CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes, 02/2009; 01/2009
This map has also been used:
- Australia, April, 2000