Continent Discontent

Here’s a question you probably think you know the answer to:

How many continents are there on the planet earth?

For generations of Americans, the answer is simple: seven. The list of continents includes Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Antarctica.

But, before you assume this blog post is done, consider this: Some geographers disagree with that number, and instead choose to count Europe and Asia as one mass of land labeled Eurasia.  And, in other parts of the world, children are taught there are only five continents: Eurasia, Australia, Africa, Antarctica and the Americas.

To confuse you even further, researchers recently made the argument that a large mass of land completely submerged under water – and part of New Zealand – qualifies as a continent and should be recognized as such.

All this continent discontent might make you want to throw your geography book out the window, but it certainly shines a spotlight on the question, “what counts as a continent?”

Exactly What IS a Continent?

Good question.

Although one accepted characterization of a continent maintains it is a large, continuous mass of land, bigger than an island and separated on all sides by water, that classification is somewhat arbitrary, which is why Greenland is considered an island, but Australia – only a couple more million km in size – is considered a continent.

In fact, by that definition, many purists believe there are only four continents – since Europe and Asia are part of one land mass, Asia and Africa are joined by an isthmus, as are the two Americas – which would just leave Australia and Antarctica.

The reason much of the world can’t agree is that there is no one definition of what makes up a continent. Some accepted factors beyond the physical attributes include distinctive flora and fauna, cultural uniqueness – and even local agreement on continental status, which I suppose means that if you believe it, it’s so!

Too Much on Your Plate

As a math-minded person, I find it difficult to define physical structures by cultural differences, so as a last resort –what about how continents relate to the tectonic plates beneath them? Surely, there must be an alignment there.

Tectonic plates are the earth’s rocky outer crust and they continue to drift, ever so slowly, across the surface of the globe. This accepted theory of continental drift explains Pangea – one super continent that began breaking up 175 million years ago into the modern configuration of continents we know today.

But, if we look at the location of the continents over these plates, we’ll realize that while Europe and Asia mostly share one plate, the Americas are separated and the country of India shares a plate with Australia. Greenland and the Philippines each have their own plates – although neither is defined as a continent today.

The only concept that becomes clear here is that depending where you are, who you are and WHEN you were – you may have a very different opinion on the total of continents.  And, here we thought numbers was a definitive subject!

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