Quick. What is the official language of Libya, Yemen, and Mauritania?
If you answered Arabic, you may have a shot at next year’s National Geographic Bee (assuming you will be in grade school).
In this year’s exciting, game-show-style competition, 10 finalists (ranging in ages from 11 to 14) competed on their knowledge of such geography and world affairs questions at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., in an event hosted by journalist and humorist Mo Rocca.
“Fair warning: our judges will not accept any alternative facts,” Rocca joked at the start of the competition.
“I grew up a geonerd myself. I remain one proudly,” Rocca added.
On a more serious note, Rocca thanked the students for being so curious about the world. “If we’re lucky you’ll grow up and become diplomats. Because we need you.”
In fact, bee finalist Ahilan Eraniyan, 12, from California said he hoped to one day become Secretary of State, so he could help foster better understanding across cultures.
The 29th annual geography bee was open to grades four through eight. This year, more than two million students competed in the bee, from tens of thousands of schools—in all U.S. states and territories. (Read about last year’s competition.)
This year's winner—Pranay Varada, 14, of Texas—was presented with a $50,000 college scholarship, a lifetime membership to the National Geographic Society, and an all-expenses-paid Lindblad expedition to the Galápagos Islands aboard the new National Geographic Endeavour ll. Second and third place winners also received scholarships.
See how well you would do at a National Geographic Bee with these questions from last year:
Varada bested runnerup Thomas Wright, 14, from Wisconsin, after a nail-biting 5-5 tie in the final round. Varada got the tiebreaker in a written round by just a few letters, putting “Kunlan” instead of Wright’s “Kunshan.” The question: What large mountain system that stretches more than 1,200 miles separates the Taklamakan Desert from the Tibetan Plateau? The correct answer: Kunlun.
Before the finals, Varada had said winning the bee was a five-year effort of his. “It would be the greatest experience of my life,” he said.
During the competition, Rocca joked that Varada should be known as “Pranay, Texas Ranger” because of his interest in Chun Kuk Do, a martial art started by Chuck Norris.
Anish Susarla, 11, from Virgnia said he is inspired by tennis great Novak Djokovic, who says there are many losses in a win. “That gave me the motivation to come here,” Susarla said.
“Education is at the heart of what the National Geographic Society is about and today these 10 finalists are the exemplar of diffusing geographic knowledge,” society president and CEO Gary Knell told the audience.
Other questions at this year’s finals included the official animal of Maine (the moose), the largest island off Alaska (Kodiak), and the currency of Armenia (dram). In a “Geo Challenge,” players had to choose why a projected map showed Civil War battlefields and not cotton plantations, with extra points for the soundness of their reasoning.
National Geographic explorer Jeffrey Marlow—who won the Colorado Geography Bee in 1999 as a student—asked the players to name the port on Cape Cod from which his recent deep sea expedition left (Woods Hole).
Another question asked the students to name which country—Indonesia, Turkey, or the Solomon Islands—would be the best new home for climate refugees from the sinking Maldives, in a challenge that required analytical reasoning and good presentation skills.
The bee was founded in 1989 to improve geographic literacy among students. "Geography is about more than places on our map, it's about the interconnection of our world," said Knell. He pointed to a recent survey that found three of four American eighth graders lack basic proficiency in the subject.
Several of the students were return competitors from past years, including Varada and Wright. At the start of competition, Wright said, “I put a lot more time in studying this year.” The first thing he did after his loss last year? Buy the National Geographic Atlas. It must have paid off.
The other finalists this year included: Rohan Kanchana, 14, from Delaware; Max Garon, 13, of D.C.; Nicholas Monahan, 14, of Idaho, Lucas Eggers, 14, of Minnesota; Abhinav Govindaraju, 12, of New Hampshire; and Veda Bhattaram, 13, of New Jersey.
Many more students will compete in future years; Alex Trebek, who hosted the National Geographic Bee for 25 years, recently endowed the program to keep it going in perpetuity.
After a question about the definition of a steep-sided mesa, Rocca joked, “I like big buttes and I can not lie, you other brothers can’t deny.”
Test your own geography knowledge with the quiz on this page, the GeoBee Challenge online, or through the National Geographic GeoBee Challenge app.
Brian Clark Howard is the most recent winner of the National Geographic Staff Geography Bee. He enjoyed participating in the youth bee as a child and is a geography buff.