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United Kingdom

United Kingdom

  • Area: 94,526 sq mi (244,820 sq km) / World Rank: 78
  • Location: Northern Hemisphere divided by the Prime Meridian between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, in Western Europe, between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, northwest of France; Northern Ireland borders Ireland to the south.
  • Coordinates: 54°00′N, 2°00′W
  • Borders: 224 mi (360 km), all with Ireland
  • Coastline: 7,723 mi (12,429 km)
  • Territorial Seas: 12 NM
  • Highest Point: Ben Nevis, 4,406 ft (1,343 m) / Mt. Paget, 9,626 ft (2,934 m), on South Georgia Island
  • Lowest Point: Fenland, 13 ft (4 m) below sea level
  • Longest Distances: 600 mi (965 km) N-S; 300 mi (485 km) E-W (Great Britain only)
  • Longest River: Severn, 220 mi (354 km)
  • Largest Lake: Lough Neagh, 154 sq mi (400 sq km)
  • Natural Hazards: None
  • Population: 59,647,790 (July 2001 est.) / World Rank: 20
  • Capital City: London, in southern England on the Thames River
  • Largest City: London, 6,962,319 (1994 census)


The United Kingdom (U.K.) is located on an archipelago off the northwestern coast of Europe, the British Isles. The major islands in the British Isles are Great Britain (often simply called Britain) and Ireland; numerous smaller islands are found nearby. Only the northern part of Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom, with the rest of the island being the Republic of Ireland. The British Isles lie between the Atlantic Ocean on the north and northwest and the North Sea on the east. Great Britain, the largest of the islands and the heartland of the country, is separated from the continent by the Strait of Dover and the English Channel, 21 mi (34 km) wide at its narrowest point, and from the Ireland by the Irish Sea, North Channel, and St. George's Channel. No place in the United Kingdom is more than 75 mi (120 km) from the sea.

The United Kingdom has four primary regions: England (50,337 sq mi / 130,373 sq km), Wales (8,018 sq mi / 20,767 sq km), and Scotland (30,415 sq mi / 78,775 sq km), all on the island of Great Britain; and Northern Ireland (5,452 sq mi / 14,120 sq km), on the island of Ireland. Each of these regions has its own geography.

England is found on the southern half of Great Britain, with Wales extending off in the west. It is composed mostly of rolling hills. The highest elevations are found in the north. In the northwest, a region known as the Lake District includes a number of small lakes and the terrain reaches higher elevations in a range known as the Cumbrian Mountains. In the north-central region, there are limestone hills known as the Pennine Chain. In the southwest, a peninsula with low plateaus and granite outcroppings makes up the region known as the West Country.

Scotland is the northern half of Great Britain, and is primarily mountainous. The Highlands occupy almost the entire northern half of the country and contain the highest peaks in the United Kingdom. South of the Highlands are the Central Lowlands, with an average elevation of 500 ft (152 m) and containing the valleys of the Tay, Forth, and Clyde Rivers. Beyond this are the Southern Uplands, with moorland cut by many valleys and rivers.

Wales is a region of rugged hills and mountains, with extensive tracts of high plateau and shorter stretches of mountain ranges deeply dissected by river valleys. It extends west from England. The Cambrian Mountains occupy almost the entire area and include Wales' highest point, Mt. Snowdon (3,560 ft / 1,085 m). There are narrow coastal plains in the south and west and small lowland areas in the north, including the valley of the Dee.

Northern Ireland consists mostly of low-lying plateaus and hills, generally from 500 to 600 ft (152 to 183 m) above sea level. The Mourne Mountains mark the southeast. At the center of the region is Lough Neagh, a large lake.

There are several island groups and hundreds of individual islands in the vicinity of Great Britain and Ireland that are part of the United Kingdom. The best known among them are the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, Skye, Mull, Islay, Arran, and the Isles of Scilly. In addition, the United Kingdom has dependencies scattered all around the world, including islands in every ocean except the Arctic.



The United Kingdom has no tall mountains by world standards, but there are many lower yet rugged ranges. The Highlands of Scotland are dominated by the Grampian Mountains and their subsidiary mountain ranges, including the Cairngorm Mountains. Ben Nevis (4,406 ft / 1,343 m), the highest peak in the United Kingdom, is found in this region, and there are more than 40 peaks that rise higher than 3,000 ft (900 m). At the southern end of Scotland are the Southern Uplands, with peaks of 2,750 ft (838 m).

The Cumbrian Mountains are the highest mountains in England. They are located in the northwestern Lake District. Scafell Pike (3,210 ft / 978 m) is the highest peak in the range. Farther south, the Cambrian Mountains occupy most of Wales and house its highest peak, Mt. Snowdon. The Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons located in the southern Wales are glacial mountains.

The Mournes Mountains in southeastern Northern Ireland include twelve rounded peaks. Slieve Donard (2,796 ft / 847 m) is the tallest.


The West Country of England, located on the southwestern Cornwall Peninsula, is the site of Exmoor and Dartmoor, low plateaus with granite projections. The Cairngorm Plateau in Scotland, located adjacent to the mountains of the same name, is a broad desert-like barren region with an elevation of more than 4,000 ft (1,220 m).

Hills and Badlands

Most of England consists of low plains and rolling downs, particularly in the south and the southeast, where the land does not rise higher than 1,000 ft (305 m) at any point. Running from east to west on the Scottish border are a series of sandstone ridges known as the Cheviot Hills, and from north to south from the Scottish border to central England is the Pennine Chain. South of the Pennines lie the Central Midlands, a plains region with low, rolling hills and fertile valleys. Southern England is the site of three ranges of low hills, the Cotswolds in the west and the North and South Downs in the east.

The Rannock moor lies in the center of Scotland, at an elevation of 1,000 ft (303 m). It is the source for most rivers in the country, and consists of peat bogs lying over granite bedrock, with rocky outcroppings. Foothills surround the mountains of Scotland and Wales.

The majority of Northern Ireland consists of low plateaus and hills, generally between 500 and 600 ft (150 to 180 m) high. In the east small hills called "drumlins" surround the area of Strangford Lough; some drumlins are partially submerged in the lough, and rise above the water's surface as small islands.



The largest lake in the U.K. is Lough Neagh (Lake Neagh, 153 sq mi/396 sq km). It lies in the center of Northern Ireland. Because it is so shallow (30 ft / 8.9 m), the water remains muddy at all times, stirred by the strong prevailing winds in the area. Fishing for eel and salmon is an important activity on Lough Neagh; thousands of tons of eel are caught there and exported each year. Southwest of Lough Neagh are the Upper and Lower Lough Erne, two large lakes on the Erne River that extend across the country and into Ireland.

Scotland is a region of many lakes, called lochs. Loch Lomond (27 sq mi / 70 sq km) lies in this region, at the foot of Highlands. It is the largest lake on Great Britain. Loch Ness (22 sq mi / 57 sq km), famous for its legendary Loch Ness monster, lies further north. Like many of the lochs, Loch Ness was created by glacial activity and is very deep. Its mean depth is 433 ft (132 m), with a maximum depth of 754 ft (230 m). The long, narrow Loch Awe (15 sq mi/39 sq km) lies northwest of Loch Lomond. Loch Shin and Loch Loyal are located in the far north.

There are no large lakes in England or Wales. However, on the northwest coast of England, near the border with Scotland, there is a region of small, picturesque lakes called the Lake District. Within the confines of the Lake District National Park, there are 15 lakes: Bassenthwaite, Ullswater, Derwent, Loweswater, Crummock, Thirlmere, Buttermere, Ennerdale, Haweswater, Grasmere, Rydal, Wast Water, Devoke Water, Coniston, and Windermere.


Rivers are plentiful throughout the United Kingdom, but most are short as the sea is always nearby. The longest rivers are found in England and Wales. The Severn is the longest in the nation (220 mi/352 km). It flows east from its source in Wales before curing south and finally west, emptying into the Bristol Channel. The Thames (200 mi / 322 km), England's best-known river and the second longest in the U.K., is navigable for about 135 mi (216 km), with more than 40 locks. Other English and Welsh rivers include the Humber, Tees, Tyne, and Great Ouse in the east, and the Avon, Wye, Dee, and the Exe in the west. The Usk, the longest river entirely within Wales, flows for 85 mi (136 km) in southern Wales. An extensive series of canals in England connects many of its southern rivers and cities together.

Scotland's river system is largely separate from that of England, although the Tweed (96 mi / 154 km) flows west along part of the border with England. The two major rivers of Scotland's central lowland are the River Clyde and the River Forth. The River Clyde (106 mi/170 km) has its source in the Southern Uplands of Scotland; it flows northwest, past Glasgow, into the Firth of Clyde. The River Forth (116 mi / 187 km) flows in an easterly direction to the North Sea at the Firth of Forth; strong tides ebb and flow, affecting the waters of the River Forth for half its length (53 mi / 85km). A canal runs across Scotland to connect the Clyde and the Forth. Scotland's longest river, the River Tay (117 mi/188 km), is further north, also flowing east to the Firth of Tay and the North Sea, near Dundee. Another major river is the Spey (110 mi/177 km), which flows north from the Northern Highlands to the North Sea. The Caledonian Canal cuts all the way across northwestern Scotland.

Northern Ireland's major rivers are the Erne, with Upper and Lower Lough Erne along its course, and the Foyle, which marks part of the border with Ireland. A canal connects Lough Neagh with the Irish Sea.


Wetlands are common throughout the United Kingdom, but are particularly common in East Anglia. This area northeast of London along the east coast is predominantly marshy, with expansive habitat for wading and sea birds. The Fens, in the northeast around the North Sea inlet, The Wash, feature vast expanses of flat land reclaimed by artificial drainage from its original marsh state. The lowest point in the U.K. is found in the fenland region. Estuaries on the south coast, such as the one at Poole Bay, feature wetlands habitats. Northern Ireland's landscape includes many peat bogs, swamps, and fens. Some coastal areas include marshy and rocky areas that support a wide range of wildlife. The region around Inverness, in Scotland, and on the Hebrides, Shetland, and Orkney Islands, supports rich wetland habitats. The Dyfi National Nature Reserve is a wetlands area in western Wales, with sand dunes, an estuary, and a peat bog, Cors Fochno. The Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast of Great Britain have been designated as protected wetlands.


Oceans and Seas

The United Kingdom is surrounded by water. The North Sea lies between Scotland and England; about 125 mi (200 km) off the coast of Dundee, Scotland, lies the Devil's Hole, a series of deep trenches in the North Sea. The Devil's Hole reaches depths of 760 ft (230 m), compared with the average of 260 to 300 ft (80 to 90 m) in the surrounding water.

The Irish Sea lies between the island of Great Britain and Ireland. The northern part of the Irish Sea is known as the North Channel, while the southern part is St. George's Channel. South of Ireland and west of the southernmost tip of Great Britain is the Celtic Sea. The reefs that lie in the waters off the Northern Ireland coast make sailing in this area of the Irish Sea dangerous. Northwest of Great Britain is the Sea of the Hebrides. Beyond that sea and its islands is the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The English Channel lies along the southern coast of Great Britain, separating it from the mainland of Europe and the northwest coast of France. The English Channel connects the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the northeast, and is one of the world's busiest waterways, with more than 500 vessels plying its waters daily. The waters of the English Channel are often rough because of the combination of strong currents and heavy winds. The coast and English Channel are periodically shrouded in dense fog. The narrowest point of the English Channel lies between Dover in the southeast Great Britain and Calais, France; the waters there are known as the Strait of Dover.

Major Islands

The United Kingdom is found in the British Isles, an enormous collection of islands northwest of the European landmass. By far the largest is the island of Great Britain (88,150 sq mi / 228,300 sq km). Great Britain is the largest island in Europe. Ireland is the second largest of the British Isles, Northern Ireland is located on the northern part of this island.

Several smaller archipelagos near Great Britain are a part of the United Kingdom. The most extensive are the Hebrides, off the northwest coast of Scotland. The Outer Hebrides include the large islands of Lewis, Harris, and North and South Uist. The principal islands of the Inner Hebrides, which are located closer to shore and extending further south, are Skye, Mull, and Islay. The Orkney Islands are a smaller archipelago, located just north of Scotland. Hoy and Mainland Islands are the largest of the group. Much further north in the North Sea are the Shetland Islands. The largest island here is also called Mainland; it has a highly irregular shape with many peninsulas, some of which enclose St. Magnus Bay. Other Shetland Islands include Yell and Unst. The Isles of Scilly are located at the other end of the country, off the southwest tip of England in the Celtic Sea. They are a collection of 140 small, rocky, islands, most notably St. Martin's, St. Mary's, and St. Agnes.

Besides these archipelagos, there are many relatively isolated islands, large and small, near Great Britain. The Isle of Wight lies in the English Channel just off the southcentral coast of England. The Isle of Anglesey is off Wales in the Irish Sea. Arran is off the coast of Scotland, southeast of the Kintyre Peninsula.

Several islands near Great Britain are crown dependencies, meaning that they are technically not a part of the United Kingdom but instead belong to that country's royal family. In practice, they are specially administered by the U.K. government. The Isle of Man is the largest (221 sq mi / 572 sq km). It lies in the Irish Sea between the Cumbrian coast of England and Northern Ireland. The Channel Islands are located south of Great Britain in the English Channel, near the coast of France. They consist of Jersey (64 sq mi / 116 sq km), Guernsey (30 sq mi / 78 sq km), and the smaller islands of Alderney, Sark, Herm, Jethou, Brechou, and Lihou. Guernsey is mostly level with low hills in southwest. Jersey, southeast of Guernsey, is a gently rolling plain with low rugged hills along the north coast.

Overseas Dependencies

The United Kingdom has numerous dependencies scattered around the entire world. These are overseas territory and dependencies of the United Kingdom itself, not the royal family. Many of the largest are in or near the Caribbean Sea. The British Virgin Islands are the eastern half of the Virgin Islands, a group of small coral and volcanic islands (see entry on British Virgin Islands) in the eastern Caribbean. Anguilla is a flat, dry, scrub-covered coral island in the Leeward Islands (see entry on Anguilla), not far east of the British Virgin Islands. Southeast of Anguilla, beyond Antigua and Barbuda, is the single island of Montserrat (39 sq mi / 100 sq km). Montserrat is rugged and volcanically active. Eruptions in 1995 and 1996 forced the evacuation of much of the population. The Turks and Caicos Islands are located further north and west, in the Atlantic Ocean. They are a series of small limestone islands at the southeastern end of the Bahamas (see entry on Turks and Caicos). South of Cuba, in the Caribbean Sea, another small archipelago dependency of the U.K. can be found, the Cayman Islands (see entry on Cayman Islands). All of these dependencies are sparsely populated; the Cayman Islands' population of roughly 35,000 is the largest among them.

Other dependencies are scattered around the world. Bermuda is an archipelago of coral islands about 580 mi (935 km) east of the United States in the North Atlantic Ocean. It has long been a favorite destination of tourists (see entry on Bermuda). A group of widely scattered volcanic islands in the South Atlantic Ocean take their name from the island of Saint Helena, where their capital is located. Other islands in this dependency include Ascencion, Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible Island, Gough, and the Nightingale Islands. Collectively they have an area of 273 sq mi (440 sq km). Queen Mary's Peak reaches 6,758 ft (2,060 m) on Tristan da Cunha.

Further south in the Atlantic Ocean, about 300 mi (483 km) east of the southern tip of South America, are the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). They consist of two large main islands, East and West Falkland, and a number of smaller islands that surround them. Together they have an area of 4,700 sq mi (12,173 sq km), making them the largest of the United Kingdom's dependencies, but they have a population of only a few thousand people. The islands have irregular coastlines and low, rugged, mountains; Mt. Usborne is the highest peak at 2,312 ft (705 m). The Falkland Islands are also claimed by Argentina, and were the scene of fighting between the two countries in 1982. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, located in two chains about 620 mi (1000 km) east of the Falkland Islands, are another dependency of the United Kingdom that is claimed by Argentina. These islands are mostly volcanic in origin and include some active volcanoes. Mt. Paget on South Georgia Island is the tallest mountain in all of the United Kingdom's possessions (9,626 ft / 2,934 m).

The United Kingdom has three other dependencies of note. The Chagos Archipelago, coral islands in the northern Indian Ocean, is the British Indian Ocean Territory. Its main island is Diego Garcia, the site of a large military base. The Pitcairn Islands are a group of small, low, volcanic islands in the south central Pacific Ocean. Gibraltar is not really an island, but rather a small peninsula (2.5 sq mi / 6.5 sq km) projecting south off of Spain's Mediterranean coastline. A British possession since 1713, Gibraltar occupies a very strategic location at the Straits of Gibraltar that connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the site of the famous Rock of Gibraltar (1,398 ft / 426 m).

The Coast and Beaches

The coasts of both Great Britain and Northern Ireland are very irregular, with many long peninsulas and deep bays, firths, and loughs. The most even part of the nation's coastline is the eastern coast of England. Much of this part of the coast is less than 5 m (15 ft) above sea level, and protected by embankments against inundations from gales and unusually high tides. Even here the coast is marked by the estuaries of the Humber and the Thames, with The Wash jutting into the coast between them.

Along the southeast coast, the Strait of Dover is bordered by white chalk cliffs that rise to 825 ft (250 m). The faces of these famous white cliffs of Dover are scarred from various battle and shipwreck events through several centuries of British history. Several short promontories, including Dungeness and Beachy Head, mark England's southern coast. Between the main island and the Isle of Wight is The Solent. The whole of southwestern England is a peninsula, Cornwall, which extends 75 mi (120 km) west into the Atlantic, separating the English Channel in the south from the Bristol Channel to the north. Its coast is rugged and rocky. White clay, used in producing fine china, is quarried in this region.

Between Wales and England, the Celtic Sea flows into the Bristol Channel. The west coast of Wales curves around Cardigan Bay, a wide bay at the east edge of St. George's Channel, with the Lleyn Peninsula at its northern end. The coastline features rugged cliffs, coves, wooded estuaries, and sandy beaches. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path, the country's only coastal national park, extends more than 167 miles (269 km). North of Wales is the open Irish Sea. Further east are Liverpool Bay and Morecambe Bay on England's northwestern coast.

As the coast approaches Scotland, both in the west and the east, it becomes even more irregular than in the rest of the country. Scotland's entire coast was deeply incised by glacial activity, which has left behind towering cliffs and headlands as well as numerous bays and inlets, the deep and narrow lochs and wide firths of Scotland. Along the sparsely populated west coast, sea inlets form lochs edged by mountains. In some areas, the terrain opens to broad open beaches. Many river estuaries serve as fine harbors. Tides are very strong in the narrower inlets. The broad Solway Firth marks the end of England's northwestern coast and the beginning of Scotland. It is separated from the North Channel by a long, narrow peninsula, ending in the Mull of Galloway. Further north are two more great firths, the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Lorn, with another long peninsula, Kintyre, between them. Both firths extend deep into the country in multiple arms, and both are connected to the North Sea on the far side of Scotland by canals. Further north on the western coast there are numerous narrower but still lengthy inlets. Cape Wrath marks the northwestern end of Great Britain.

The eastern coast of Scotland features fewer of the small, narrow inlets so predominate in the west, but instead has two deep, broad, indentations, with a headland between them. The northernmost ends in Moray and Dornoch Firths. Further south is the Firth of Forth, which plunges nearly straight into the island, reaching deep into the central lowlands region.

Along the east coast of Northern Ireland is a large sea inlet known as the Strangford Lough. Seawater rushes through the narrow gap, causing powerful, fast-moving currents twice every day with the changing tides. Strangford comes from a Scandinavian word for "violent fjord." Other notable loughs on Northern Ireland's coast are Lough Foyle at the northwestern border, and Carlingford Lough along the southeastern border. The Giant's Cause-way is an unusual natural feature resembling a huge ramp, about 900 ft (274 m) across and extending 500 ft (150 m) into the ocean.



Warmed by the North Atlantic Drift, the United Kingdom enjoys a temperate climate, with the temperature rarely exceeding 90°F (32°C) in the summer months or dropping below 14°F (-10°C) in the winter. During the winter, monthly temperatures range from 37°F (3°C) to 41°F (5°C). Summertime temperatures range from 54°F to 61°F (12 to 16°C).


Rainfall is lightest along the eastern and southeastern coasts, and heaviest on the western and northern heights, where precipitation can exceed 150 in (380 cm). Average annual rainfall across the country is just above 40 in (100 cm), with rain distributed evenly throughout the year.


Except for the hilly areas in the north and west, and some forested areas, most of England is naturally rolling grassland. This is particularly true of the Midlands part of England. However, most of England's open land is now highly developed and urbanized.


Most of England's forestland has been destroyed, with new natural forest areas remaining. The government has

Population Centers – United Kingdom
Name Population Name Population
London, England 7,640,000 Tyneside (Newcastle upon Tyne), England 981,000
Birmingham, England 2,272,000 Liverpool, England 915,000
Manchester, England 2,252,000    
Leeds, England 1,433,000    
SOURCE : "Table A.12. Population of Urban Agglomerations with 750,000 Inhabitants or More in 2000." United Nations Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision.
Regions – United Kingdom
Name Population Area (sq mi) Area (sq km) Capital
England 49,997,100 50,363 130,439 London
Northern Ireland 1,697,800 5,452 14,120 Belfast
Scotland 5,114,600 30,418 78,783 Edinburgh
Wales 2,946,200 8,019 20,768 Cardiff
SOURCE : "Mid-2000 UK Populations Estimates." National Statistics: the Official UK Statistics Site." (9 May 2002). [Online] Available (accessed 3 June 2002).

made efforts to plant coniferous trees, but this has changed the soil acidity and led to further destruction. Most of the country's forestland is found in England. The area known as New Forest, located between Southampton and Bournemouth, is the largest preserved forestland in England. Its beech and oak trees cover 145 sq mi (376 sq km). It was set aside as a hunting area by William the Conqueror in 1079. The area retains many of the old medieval practices. For example, local inhabitants, referred to as "commoners" are granted right to graze cattle, horses, and pigs on forest land.


Although there are many ethnic and religious minorities, the majority of the population is Caucasian and Christian, mainly Anglican. Approximately nine-tenths of the population live in urban areas. Greater London is the most heavily and most densely populated part of the country. Another area of dense population with many major cities is found along England's Irish Sea coast, extending into the center of the country. Scotland's Central Lowlands is another center of population, though not nearly so densely settled as those in England. The primary concentration of people in Wales is along the southern coast; in Northern Ireland it is in the east and southeast. The English comprise about 81.5 percent of the population, followed by Scottish (9.6 percent), Irish (2.4 percent) Welsh (1.9 percent), and Ulster (1.8 percent). The remaining 2.8 percent of the population is composed mainly of West Indian, Indian, and Pakistani people.


There are few mineral resources in the United Kingdom. Coal was historically the country's most important resource, with extensive deposits throughout northern England, but much of this ore has been exhausted. However, the United Kingdom has control over major oil deposits in the North Sea. Other minerals include limestone, dolomite, kaolin, ball clay, gypsum, sand, and gravel. The economy of the United Kingdom is among the world's largest and most highly developed, with important manufacturing, commercial, and service sectors.


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Lake District National Park Authority Online. (Accessed July 23, 2002).

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Norwich, John Julius. England & Wales. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Scotland. New York: Knopf, 2001.

UK 2002: The Official Yearbook of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Norwich: Stationery Office, 2001.

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Welcome to Scotland. (Accessed July 23, 2002).


The Channel Tunnel is a set of tunnels underneath the Strait of Dover that connects southeastern England to northeastern France. Dug between 1988 and 1991, it opened for use in 1994. When construction began it was the most expensive engineering project ever attempted. The final cost was $21 billion. At 31 mi (50 km) long it is among the longest tunnels on Earth; 24 mi (38 km) are under the English Channel itself. The Channel Tunnel actually consists of three tunnels: two main tunnels for rail traffic with a smaller maintenance tunnel between them. They are buried an average of 148 ft (45 m) beneath the ocean floor. Traveling from one end of the tunnel to the other takes roughly 35 minutes.

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