How many continents?

I have two questions that my flatmate and I are disagreeing on.

One - how many continents are there? What are they? And is Australia or Antarctica included? (I say they aren’t because they are made up of one country)

Two - Is Russia (or the former Soviet Union) part of Asia or Europe?

Thanks dudes! I could get a free pack of meat pies out of this.

  1. Depends on who you ask. I learned seven: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Fella bilong missus flodnak learned that there are five: America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. I’ve heard many other variations as well, for instance counting Eurasia as a single continent (which makes sense for a number of reasons). However, I must say I’ve never heard anyone claim that Australia shouldn’t count because “it’s only one country” (and Antarctica has no countries at all…) Cecil has addressed the Europe/Asia issue, and apparently also learned that there are seven. (Asked my 7 year old son how many continents there were. “Seven,” he said, with the air of someone who was sure everybody already knew that. Kids today, I’m telling you.)

  2. Both. Europe and Asia are traditionally divided by the Ural Mountains, which run through Russia. Most of Russia’s people live in the European part, but most of its land area is in the Asian part.

Last I remember it’s considered that there are seven continents (North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and Antarctica). I actually haven’t had anyone tell me different since grade school - the classifications on Australia may have changed, but I doubt it. Australia would be considered a continent (as opposed to an island) because of it’s size, and the fact that it’s all one country isn’t relevent. It’s a separate gigantic land mass, and that’s pretty much all that counts. Although these rules seem different with respect to Europe and Asia… it’s all one land mass, but they are definetly classified as separate continents. To be technical, N and S America are also connected, but that would be splitting hairs. I’m not sure of the Russian thing; off the top of my head I would have said it’s part of Asia, but the previous reply looks more accurate.

Thanks guys. I’m sure you can see my confusion.

I’ve heard different arguments for and against including Australia - and if it also includes New Zealand, some Pacific Islands, etc, and then call it Australasia (or Oceania).

And then it’s the definition aspect, too, which is inconsistent at best.

Ah well. I like the Russia answer that flodnak proposes, as that means I neither win nor lose the bet.

I always heard the difinition of a continent as “a large mass of land completely surrounded by water”. The list I remember is: Africa, Eurasia, N. America, S. America, Australia, and Antarctica. That makes 6 in all.

The definitions of continents are various and arbitrary. They seem to vary from place to place (continent to continent) as well. I grew up thinking that there are 7 (although I always wondered why Eurasia counted as 2), but here in Germany, people usually count North and South America as one continent.

Conclusion: define “continent” in the way you want (geologically, geographically, culturally…) and just count 'em.

This was discussed recently in the SDMB. Search under “Continents” “General Questions” at any time and you’ll find it. The continents are defined by the continental shelfs. Australia is a continent, but Greenland isn’t, altho Greenland is larger, because Australia is on a continental shelf and Greenland doesn’t have a shelf to call its own.

At several times eons ago, all the land mass was congealed into one. The last time it was called “Pangea.” When it broke up, it broke up into the continental shelfs, of which there are 7, Europe and Asia each having its own.

*Originally posted by barbitu8 *

Minor nitpick…Greenland is NOT larger than Australia. Greenland often appears to be rather large due to the projection used (such as the Mercator projection that preserves distance, rather than the size and shape of landforms).

Greenland = 2,175,600 total sq. km.
Australia = 7,686,850 total sq. km. (about the size of the United States).

Source: CIA World Factbook

barbitu8 is correct, Most geologists/geographers identify 6 continents (North America, South America, Africa, Eurasia, Australia, and Antarctica) based on plate techtonics - with Europe often identifed as a continent for historical/cultural reasons.

Check out for map depicting the major plates (Note distorted size of Greenland relative to Australia; that’s due to the map projection used).

Recursive minor nitpick - the Mercator projection’s value is not that it preserves distances (it doesn’t), but that compass directions come out to be straight lines.

*Originally posted by yabob *

You are correct - I was thinking direction, but typed distance. Meridians are kept parallel and make the Mercator projection a useful navigational aid.

I’ve got too much geographic knowledge floating around in my head - occupational hazard, I guess :). yabob, thanks for keeping me on my toes.

I often hear India referred to as “the sub-continent of India” because, IIRC, after it broke off from Pangea it floated around by itself for a while before crashing into Nepal, et al. I guess it doesn’t count as a continent - continental shelf notwithstanding - because it fused itself with Asia.

Another error I made is referring to them as continental “shelves.” Actually, they are continental plates, the shelves being only the rim of them. That would’ve sounded better too: Greenland has no place to call its own.

[technical nitpick]
Pangea broke into two pieces (Laurasia and Gondwanaland). The Indian subcontinent was part of Gondwanaland which itself broke up and the section that was to become the Indian subcontinent buggered off up north. Before it bumped into Asia (Laurasia??), I presume it would have been classed as a continent. [/technical nitpick]

IIRC, it is still moving north, hence the Himalayan mountains are still growing.

The ** Peters Projection ** is an interesting map that shows countries scaled according to their surface area. One example is that on Mercator shows Europe as being signnificantly larger than South America, when it is about half it’s size (9.7mil sq miles v 17.8mil sq miles)

*Originally posted by woolly *

While the Peters projection preserves surface area, it still distorts the other cartographic concerns (particularly shape). The Robinson projection is also another popular projection that reasonable preserves shape, size, distance, and direction for all the major landforms. Although distortation still occurs near the poles, it isn’t as dramatic as the Mercator projection.

Check out for an example of a map using the Robinson projection.

An even better map that preserves all four cartographic concerns (size, shape, distance, and direction) is the Dymaxion map first proposed by Buckminster Fuller. Although somewhat unconventional, its extremely accurate in depicting the size and shape of the major continents relative to one another.

Check out for more info on the Dymaxion map projection.

Sheesh. It’s seven already! Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, North America, South America, Antarctica.

The distinctions are purely geographical (with a bit of arbitrary stuff thrown in . :smiley: You could conceivably speak of “Eurasia”, and “America”, but I’ve heard the number to be seven so many times that I was unaware it was a point of contention). The number of countries occupying any given continent counts for nought. For those who were saying the Australian continent is occupied by one country, I’d have to point out that not only is that irrelevant, but it is not entirely correct. The Australian continent is occupied by most of one country - ask any Tasmanian. Islands, by their definition, do not belong to any continent.

And who was America named after? I used to know, but I forgot. I remember it was somebody of absolutely no importance - if so, what a cool guy!

Dividing Eurasia into two “continents” is not based in any physical reality, so the boundary is bound to be arbitrary. The Ural Mountains, running conveniently north-south, have been chosen as the dividing line. But they don’t go all the way through. What about the flat area to the south of the mountains? There’s the Ural River flowing from the mountains to the Caspian Sea–we’ll use that.

Now it turns out that the northwestern portion of Kazakstan lies west of the Ural River (the boundaries of Kazakstan were placed wherever the Kazak nomads historically used to roam). That puts it in Europe! How can that be?! Those Asian-looking, kumys-drinking, yurt-dwelling Kazaks in Europe? Horrors! That undertone of racism must be why one atlas I’ve seen moved the Asia-Europe border to coincide with the Kazak border. Get those people out of Europe and back into Asia where they belong! Next they’ll be letting the Mongols in!

Here’s Cecil’s answer:
Why do Europe and Asia count as two continents?


A German geographer, Martin Waldseemüller, accepted the claim of Amerigo Vespucci that he had landed on the American mainland before Columbus. In 1507 Waldseemüller published a book in which he named the new land “America.”

Staff Report:

Why are Europe and Asia considered separate continents? What’s a continent, anyway? (Apr-21-1999)