Jamaica lies 145 kilometers south of Cuba and 160 kilometers
west of Haiti (see fig. ___, frontispiece, and fig.___, Jamaica.
Administrative Divisions.). Its capital city, Kingston, is about
920 kilometers southeast of Miami. At its greatest extent, Jamaica
is 235 kilometers long, and it varies between 35 and 82 kilometers
wide. With an area of 10,911 square kilometers, Jamaica is the
largest island of the Commonwealth Caribbean and the third largest
of the Greater Antilles, after Cuba and Hispaniola (the island
containing the Dominican Republic and Haiti). The Pedro Banks, an
area of shallow seas extending generally east to west for over 160
kilometers, lie southwest of Jamaica. A cluster of cays (low
islands or reefs--see Glossary) are associated with the banks. To
the southeast lie the Morant Cays, fifty-one kilometers from Morant
Point, the easternmost point of Jamaica.
Jamaica and the other islands of the Antilles evolved from an
arc of ancient volcanoes that rose from the sea billions of years
ago. During periods of submersion, thick layers of limestone were
laid down over the old igneous and metamorphic rock. In many
places, the limestone is thousands of feet thick. The country can
be divided into three landform regions: the eastern mountains, the
central valleys and plateaus, and the coastal plains (see fig. ___,
The highest area is that of the Blue Mountains. These eastern
mountains are formed by a central ridge of metamorphic rock running
northwest to southeast from which many long spurs jut to the north
and south. For a distance of over 3 kilometers, the crest of the
ridge exceeds 1,800 meters. The highest point is Blue Mountain Peak
at 2,256 meters. The Blue Mountains rise to these elevations from
the coastal plain in the space of about sixteen kilometers, thus
producing one of the steepest general gradients in the world. In
this part of the country, the old metamorphic rock reveals itself
through the surrounding limestone.
To the north of the Blue Mountains lies the strongly tilted
limestone plateau forming the John Crow Mountains. This range rises
to elevations of over 1,000 meters. To the west, in the central
part of the country, are two high rolling plateaus: the Dry Harbour
Mountains to the north and the Manchester Plateau to the south.
Between the two, the land is rugged and here, also, the limestone
layers are broken by the older rocks. Streams that rise in the
region flow outward and sink soon after reaching the limestone
The limestone plateau covers two-thirds of the country, so that
karst formations dominate the island. Karst is formed by the
erosion of the limestone in solution. Sinkholes, caves and caverns,
disappearing streams, hummocky hills, and terra rosa (residual red)
soils in the valleys are distinguishing features of a karst
landscape; all these are present in Jamaica. To the west of the
mountains is the rugged terrain of the Cockpit Country, one of the
world's most dramatic examples of karst topography.
The Cockpit Country is pockmarked with steep-sided hollows as
much as fifteen meters deep and separated by conical hills and
ridges. This area of the country was once known as the "Land of
Look Behind," because Spanish horsemen venturing into this region
of hostile runaway slaves were said to have ridden two to a mount,
one rider facing to the rear to keep a precautionary watch. Where
the ridges between sinkholes in the plateau area have dissolved,
flat-bottomed basins or valleys have been formed that are filled
with terra rosa soils, some of the most productive on the island.
The largest basin is the Vale of Clarendon, eighty kilometers long
and thirty-two kilometers wide. Queen of Spains Valley, Nassau
Valley, and Cave Valley were formed by the same process.
The coastline of Jamaica is one of many contrasts. The
northeast shore is severely eroded by the ocean. There are many
small inlets in the rugged coastline, but no coastal plain of any
extent. A narrow strip of plains along the northern coast offers
calm seas and white sand beaches. Behind the beaches is a flat
raised plain of uplifted coral reef.
The southern coast has small stretches of plains lined by black
sand beaches. These are backed by cliffs of limestone where the
plateaus end. In many stretches with no coastal plain, the cliffs
drop 300 meters straight to the sea. In the southwest, broad plains
stretch inland for a number of kilometers. The Black River courses
seventy kilometers through the largest of these plains. The
swamplands of the Great Morass and the Upper Morass fill much of
the plains. The western coastline contains the island's finest
beaches, stretching for more than six kilometers along a sandbar at
Two types of climate are found on Jamaica. An upland tropical
climate prevails on the windward side of the mountains, whereas a
semiarid climate predominates on the leeward side. Warm trade winds
from the east and northeast bring rainfall throughout the year. The
rainfall is heaviest from May to October, with peaks in those two
months. The average rainfall is 196 centimeters per year. Rainfall
is much greater in the mountain areas facing the north and east,
however. Where the higher elevations of the John Crow Mountains and
the Blue Mountains catch the rain from the moisture-laden winds,
rainfall exceeds 508 centimeters per year. Since the southwestern
half of the island lies in the rain shadow of the mountains, it has
a semiarid climate and receives fewer than 762 millimeters of
Temperatures are fairly constant throughout the year, averaging
25°C to 30°C in the lowlands and 15°C to 22°C at
Temperatures may dip to below 10°C at the peaks of the Blue
Mountains. The island receives, in addition to the northeast trade
winds, refreshing onshore breezes during the day and cooling
offshore breezes at night. These are known on Jamaica as the
"Doctor Breeze" and the "Undertaker's Breeze," respectively.
Jamaica lies at the edge of the hurricane track; as a result,
the island usually experiences only indirect storm damage.
Hurricanes occasionally score direct hits on the islands, however.
In 1980, for example, Hurricane Allen destroyed nearly all
Jamaica's banana crop.
Although most of Jamaica's native vegetation has been stripped
in order to make room for cultivation, some areas have been left
virtually undisturbed since the time of Columbus. Indigenous
vegetation can be found along the northern coast from Rio Bueno to
Discovery Bay, in the highest parts of the Blue Mountains, and in
the heart of the Cockpit Country.
Data as of November 1987