What are Continents?

How many continents are there? If you grew
up in the English-Speaking world you might think that the answer is obvious: 1, 2, 3,
4, 5, 6, 7. But not everyone count continents the same
way. The usual deffiniton, that they’re large
land masses separated from others by oceans is fine, until you actually start to think
about it, and then you run into problems. Problems, like, this: Here’s Europe, here’s Asia and you’ll
notice the lack of ocean between them. Why then, are they two different continents? The usual reason for this split is a cultural
one: that Europe is so different from Asia that it’s best to pretend it’s a separate
entity. OK… maybe. But if the cultural argument is valid then
surely it also applies to India and the middle east. Now you have nine continents and a new
problem: if culture defines continents then you’ll never stop drawing increasingly unhelpful
lines. So some places ditch the culture division
and combine Europe and Asia into Eurasia. This Eurasia is not to be confused with this
Eurasia, which has always been at war with Eastasia
Making Eurasia gives a six continent view of the world. But what about over here: North America and
South America? They’re connected at Panama – or at least
they were until Teddy Roosevelt decided that someone had to cut that country in half and
it might as well be him. But even still the Canal is only 13 meters
deep. You could walk all the way from Northern Alaska
across the narrow Panama canal and, if it weren’t for the deadly, impenetrable, poison
filled Brazilian rain forest, make it all the way to the southern tip of Chile. So North
and South America, despite the canal, aren’t really divided.
Which is why some places, particularly South America, treat America as a single continent,
not two. Which brings the total number of continents down to five. But… if you discard the Panama Canal then
you also have to discard the Suez Canal and you’ve just created the monstrously large
Afro-Eurasian continent: 85 million square kilometers home to 5.7 billion people. With this four-continent view of the world
we must be done because there are no more continents to merge and our deffiniton from
the beginning is now consistent. Except we’re not done because of that troublesome
word ‘large’. Exactly how large is continental large? Is Australia really a dinky continent or is
it the king of the Islands? Why not make Greenland the smallest continent? It’s pretty big,
even if you took away its ice. And speaking of ice, what about Antarctica?
The forgotten continent unfairly smushed against the bottom of maps just because no one lives
there. Remove the ice sheet that covers Antarctica
and you reveal it for the archipelago it really is not the single land mass it pretends to
be. And, to complicate matters, the largest of
these Antarctic Islands is smaller than Australia. So if you want to keep calling Antarctica
a continent, then there’s a bunch of other islands that might want to be continents too. Islands like New Guinea, Borneo, Madagascar,
Baffin Island, Sumatra, and Honshu. While this seems inclusive to the point of
silliness, ultimately someone has to decide what ‘large’ means and that’s going
to be an arbitrary line. This problem will be familiar to anyone who
remembers the is-Pluto-a-planet-or-not-a-planet fiasco which hinged — mostly — on this same
issue of size. So now we’re more confused than before we
started: there might be three continents or dozens. You know what will sort this out: SCIENCE! Confusion + science=answers Let’s ask a Geologist what a continent is. For them a continent is a tectonic plate:
parts of the Earth’s crust that move together. So, geologists, show us your continents. The Antarctic, plate, the Australian plate,
the Eurasian plate, the South American plate, the African plate. So far, this looks pretty
good. The… middle eastern plate. The… indian
plate. The Caribbean plate? The pacific plate? Well, there isn’t even
anything there. Well, there’s mostly nothing there. The
Nazca plate? The scotia plate? Really? At least North America is still lookin’
reasonable. Until you include a chuck of Russia, and half of japan and half of Iceland! Well, this is unhelpful — thanks a lot, Geologists. The heart of the problem is that the word
‘continent’ doesn’t have a simple & consistent deffiniton for every day use. So how many
continents are there? Well, how many do you want there to be? Six. The answer is clearly six.�

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