An Examination of the Seven Continents from Largest to SmallestPublished on March 3rd, 2015 | by Brandon Ramsey in Geography
Until this point in our history, we have not found another planet teeming with life like our own. We continue to search, but it has become clear that what we have in planet Earth is something special, at least within the scope of our understanding.
Our planet is naturally divided into continents and oceans, so the first question that comes to mind is what are the seven continents? Furthermore, how many oceans are there?
These answers will all come in time as we explore this planet we call home. Let us examine the seven continents in great detail from the largest to the smallest. After that, we will explore the depths of the world’s five major oceans.
A continent is a mass of land far larger than an island. We further divide these land masses into countries, cities, towns, and communities. We have created our own boundaries, but the only natural ones exist on the edges where land becomes water.
There are seven total continents in the world. Some people will combine the continents of Europe and Asia into a single one known as Eurasia, while others will refer to both North and South America as the “American continent” but by the major classification these are separate in both forms.
Join us as we examine these continents in order of size. We will explore everything from the geography to the ecosystem, to the economy, and the culture of each land mass.
#1 – Asia
The continent of Asia is the largest and most populated landmass on Earth. It is located in the eastern and northern hemispheres of the planet. Of the total planet’s surface area, it only covers 8.7% with the oceans included. In terms of total land mass, Asia occupies 30% of the total land on the planet.
In addition to this, the continent is also home to roughly 60% of the total human population. This is approximately 4.4 billion people living in dense and large cities throughout the continent.
There is no clear continental boundary between Asia and Europe, so the division was decided by human means. The most common boundaries are represented by natural landmarks and rivers which include the following:
- Suez Canal
- Ural River
- Ural Mountains
- Caucasus Mountains
- The Caspian and Black Seas
The east of these landmarks represents the edge of Asia’s borders. The continent is bordered in the north by the Arctic Ocean, by the Pacific Ocean on the East, and by the Indian Ocean on the South. The continent itself is divided into 48 separate countries. Two of them, Russia and Turkey, extend into the boundaries of Europe.
The geography and climate of Asia is widely varied across the landmass. For example, the climates in the north near Siberia are arctic and subarctic, while the climate in the south near India and Southeast Asia is classified as tropical.
The interior of the continent is dry and arid, housing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, and the Arabian Desert in the Middle East.
In terms of geography, the continent is noted for having the tallest mountain range in the world: the Himalayas between Nepal and China. Among these mountains is the famous Mount Everest which is the tallest mountain in the world. In China, the Yangtze River is noted for being the longest river in the continent.
Southern Asia is home to tropical rainforests while the north is home to coniferous and deciduous forests. When it comes to climate and geography, Asia is extremely varied. This translates directly into a richness of wildlife and ecosystems across the continent.
The tropical and desert areas of the continent are home to a number of different snake and crocodile species that are native to the continent. There are over five different bird families that are also native to Asia, in addition to over twenty species of Mammals which include the iconic Asian Elephant and the Panda.
The continent is also home to some of the most powerful economies in the world. The largest ones include the following:
- South Korea
This continent is also home to a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and history. For starters, the amount of languages spoken throughout the continent is staggering. Even one single country like China has multiple dialects and variations of the language.
According to Ethnologue, there are over 600 different languages spoken in Indonesia alone, and more than 800 languages spoken in India. Many of the world’s modern religions can also trace their history back to this continent. Everything from Christianity, to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and more have roots in this part of the world.
#2 – Africa
Africa is both the second largest continent and the second most populated continent in the world. The total size of this landmass is 11.7 million square-miles including the islands surrounding the edges of the land.
Geographically, Africa is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the West, the Indian Ocean to the southeast, and the Red Sea to the northeast.
The continent is divided into 54 sovereign states, nine territories, and two independent states on the continent. The size of the continent accounts for 20.4% of the total land area and six percent of the Earth’s total surface. With over a billion people living in the boundaries of Africa, it also represents 15% of the human population on the planet.
The climate of Africa ranges from sub-arctic and tropical on the higher peaks of the continent, to desert and arid climates in the north and central area. While the central region of the continent includes the savanna plains, the south contains very dense rainforests.
Despite the varying climates, Africa remains the hottest continent on Earth. Over 60% of the surface area is classified as a dryland or desert.
The wide variety of wild animals in Africa is attributed to both the diversity of the continent’s geography and climate, and to the range of freedom that these animals enjoy. Large populations of carnivores and herbivores can be seen freely roaming the open non-private plains of the continent.
Here are some examples of the native fauna in the continent:
While the continent is rich with natural resources, the economy and development of Africa is well behind the rest of the world. It remains the poorest and most underdeveloped continent as a result of corrupt governments, tribal and military conflict, poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, low water supply, and poor sanitation.
Other countries have made efforts to invest in the continent. In addition, there are a number of organizations and movements seeking to provide aid to those in need within the continent.
While not all of the countries are in this level of extreme poverty, a vast amount of them are. Over half of the population in the continent is under the age of 25, making it the youngest population in the world.
Estimates claim that there are as many of as two thousand different languages spoken in Africa. This represent the rich variations of cultures and people throughout the continent. A history of colonial oppression has dampened some of the ancient cultures, but recently they have begun to surface again.
Historical architecture like the Great Pyramid of Giza and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe are examples of major landmarks in the continent. While many of the peoples in this continent still experience poverty and strife, the rich history and cultural significance of this place is only matched by the variety of wildlife that can be found here.
#3 – North America
The continent of North America is located entirely within the North Hemisphere and is bordered on the north by the Arctic Ocean, by the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, and by the Atlantic Ocean to the east. South America is located to the southeast, along with the Caribbean Sea.
With over 9,540,000 square miles of surface area, it accounts for 4.8% of the planet surface and 16.5% of the land surface area. The total population on the continent is estimated at 565 million people across 23 total countries.
For the most part, the continent is taken up by the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Greenland. There are smaller states and countries in Central America and in the Caribbean regions. The name “America” is usually attributed to the Italian Explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
He first explored South America in the early 1500s and was the first European to suggest that the Americas were not part of the East Indies, but were in fact a different landmass entirely. For a time, the entirety of North and South America were simply referred to as “the Americas.”
The geography of North America is divided into four regions:
- The Great Plains
- Canadian Shield
The Great Plains is located west of the Mississippi river and east of the Rocky Mountains which stretch up into central Canada. The Canadian Shield, also known as the Laurentian Plateau is an area created from soil covering layers of volcanic rock.
The East refers to the region located east of the Appalachian Mountains. The West is everything west of the Rocky Mountains.
Other notable geographic aspects include Death Valley, which is the lowest point in North America, and the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior, which can be found in Ontario and Minnesota.
The United States has the largest economy in both North America and the world. Canada and Mexico follow close behind with varied and successful economies of their own.
The demographics of North America vary greatly. The most common languages spoken are Spanish, English, and French. While Canada has English and French as the official languages, the United States does not have an official language.
North America is home to a large number of animal and plant species. The ones that are endangered can only be found in wildlife preserves such as Yellowstone National Park in the western United States.
Everything from species of bears and wolves, to various reptiles such as the bullfrog, the gila monster, and species of rattlesnakes can be found throughout the continent.
Fish are especially abundant on the continent. Trout, Bass, and Salmon can be found in various areas around North America. Endangered species such as the Bald Eagle, the Bison, and others are protected within national parks and by government laws.
#4 – South America
The continent of South America is located primarily in the Southern Hemisphere which a small piece of it in the Northern Hemisphere. It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and by the Atlantic Ocean in the east and north. There are a total of twelve sovereign states that makeup the continent.
The entire continent spans across 6,890,000 square-miles. It ranks fourth in size and fifth in population among the rest of the continents in the world. The geography of the continent encompasses the Andes Mountains in the west, the highlands, and the lowlands in the central and eastern regions of the continent.
The continent of South America is home to the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world known as Angel Falls which is located in Venezuela. It is also home to the world’s largest river by volume: the Amazon River. In addition, the continent is known for the Amazon Rainforest.
South America has a number of valuable mineral resources as well:
These are all present in high volumes within the continent and fuel various countries income. With the variations in both climate and geography, South America is one of the most bio-diverse continents on the planet.
Exotic species of llama, anaconda, piranha, jaguar, and tapir can be found here, in addition to many other types of animals and plants. The Amazon Rainforest is home to a major proportion of Earth’s species as well.
In terms of economy, South America relies on the export of manufactured goods and natural resources to an extent, but not as widely as the world average. The largest country in South America, Brazil, has the seventh largest economy in the world and leads the continent in terms of economy and in merchandise exports.
Tourism is a major source of income for South American countries as well. The continent is home to various historical sites and breathtaking natural vistas. In addition, the wide demographic of peoples, foods, music, and other elements of culture have contributed to a strong tourist destination.
Major locations include the following:
- Machu Picchu
- Amazon Rainforest
- Rio de Janeiro
- Buenos Aires
- The Galapagos Islands
These are just a handful of the popular and inspiring locations that have garnered a major tourist attraction. The music and culture of the continent is inspired by the indigenous peoples of the area, along with historical connections to Africa and from various immigrants around the world.
The main languages spoken in South America are Spanish and Portuguese. Spanish remains the official language of most countries, while Portuguese is the official language of Brazil. Sports are a major part of the culture in many countries as well. Football, or Soccer as it is known in North America, is the most popular.
South American is scheduled to hold the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and they previously hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2014.
#5 – Antarctica
The fifth-largest continent is one that many of us have only seen in pictures. Located in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica contains the Earth’s geographic South Pole. It is 5.4 million square-miles in size, almost twice the size of Australia. Over 98% of the continent is covered in ice that averages at over a mile thick.
It is the coldest continent on Earth with recorded temperatures as low as -89.2 Celsius or -128.6 Fahrenheit. These temperatures were recorded by the Russian Vostok Station on July 21st, 1983, making that station the coldest inhabited place on Earth.
Some notable phenomena that occur include the aurora australis, otherwise known as the southern lights, and diamond dust. The former is a glow in the sky caused by the solar winds that pass by the Earth. Diamond dust is a ground-level cloud composed of tiny ice crystals that forms on clear days.
The continent is not entirely barren, there are several world governments that have permanent research stations on Antarctica. The number of people on the continent ranges from 1,000 to 5,000 depending on the season. The population density is incredibly small though, these stations are spread thinly across the land.
There are a few different types of animals that live in Antarctica despite the harsh conditions. The seas around the continent are occupied by penguins, blue whales, orcas, colossal squids, and fur seals. The emperor penguin is the only penguin that breeds during winter in Antarctica.
There are over a thousand different species of fungi from Antarctica and a variety of algae and phytoplankton as well. These types of microscopic organisms are among the only ones that can withstand the harsh conditions year-round.
The continent doesn’t have a government, but there are numerous countries that claim a sovereignty in certain areas. None of these claims, while recognized locally, are universally recognized. The continent is considered politically neutral and is regulated by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty along with other agreements signed by over twelve major countries.
The continent is a valuable place for scientists as well. Each year there are scientists from over 28 different nations present to conduct experiments that cannot be done anywhere else in the world.
#6 – Europe
The continent of Europe is attached to Asia, so the division of the two is more for cultural and political purposes. The entirety of the landmass on which it resides is also known as Eurasia. It is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south.
Europe is the second-smallest continent covering 3,930,000 square-miles in total. This equivocates to 2% of the Earth’s surface and 6.8% of the total land mass. Of the 50 total countries in Europe, Russia is the largest in both size and population. The smallest in comparison is the Vatican City.
Despite the size, Europe is the third-most populated continent behind Asia and Africa. The population is roughly 743 million which is 11% of the world’s population. Europe is unique in that is contains the birthplace of Western Culture: ancient Greece.
Over the course of history between the 16th and 20th centuries, European countries controlled the Americas, a large portion of Africa, Oceania, and a vast majority of Asia. Europe was also the location for both major world wars, in addition to the setting for the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, also known as “Europe’s central heating,” the climate is far wetter and warmer than it would otherwise be. This stream brings warm water to the coasts and warms the west flowing winds that blow across from the Atlantic Ocean.
The economy of Europe is varied, with some countries still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. On the other hand, the European Union is a collection of 28 European states that makes it the largest single economic area in the world. Approximately 18 of these countries use the euro as a common currency between them.
Five of these countries rank in the world’s largest national economies. The range of culture and language in Europe is best described as a patchwork of various ingredients. Within the same continent are vastly different cultures, languages, and religious beliefs. To choose a single common one is not possible as there are too many different countries and cultures.
#7 – Australia
This continent is unique in that is lies on a continental shelf overlaid with shallow seas. This causes it to be divided by water in to several masses of land. The Aratura Sea and the Torres Strait divide the mainland and New Guinea.
The Bass Strait divides the mainland and Tasmania. Over ten thousand years ago sea levels were lower and these were all connected by land. The standard definition of a continent includes all of the land on a continental shelf, which is why these are all grouped together. New Zealand is also considered a part of the continent, but it is actually part of a submerged continent called Zelandia.
The mainland of Australia is 3,310,000 square-miles, making it the smallest continent on Earth. The continent sits on the Indo-Australian Plate and as a result, does not have any volcanic regions. It is the only continent to have this characteristic.
Of the animals in Australia, in many cases a majority of them are native to the continent. This is a result of the continent being isolated from the rest of the world for the vast majority of Earth’s history. A large number of indigenous insects and aquatic life are also venomous, making it a dangerous place for those who are unaware of them.
The first human inhabitants in Australia were thought to have come from New Guinea and Indonesia and settled roughly 60,000 years ago. The first documented contact with Australia was done by the Dutch. This country’s demographic is composed mostly of natives, but a large number of citizens came from another country, usually the United Kingdom.
The primary language spoken is English, but Italian and Greek are also used. The Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef are major attractions for both natives and visitors to the continent.
Without a second thought, you can now answer the question “What are the seven continents?” You can also provide numerous facts about each one, but we’re not finished yet. Let’s examine the five great oceans of the world next.
The Five Major Oceans of Earth
The Earth’s surface is composed of roughly 70% water, 96% of which is salt water. These oceans are connected in many places, but also separated by the continents. As such, we’ve divided them into major spans. There are five in total:
- The Pacific Ocean
This is the largest ocean on Earth, it covers 63,784,077 square-miles and spans between the west coast of the American continents, and the east coasts of Asia and Africa. It is bordered on the north and south by the arctic and Antarctic regions of the planet.
The deepest location on the seafloor is in this ocean. Known as the Challenger Deep, it is located in the Marianas Trench. It is almost 7 miles below sea level. Despite thinking that life couldn’t exist at such intense depths of pressure, numerous species have been found at these depths.
- The Atlantic Ocean
The Atlantic Ocean is 41,081,270 square miles in size and spans from the east coast of the American continents to the western coast of Europe and Africa. The Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Baltic seas are part of this ocean. It also includes the Gulf of Mexico.
Until the 15th century, this was the most explored ocean and was considered to be the only one of its kind. This ocean has been a source of both food and whale oil for centuries. While the sperm whales native to this area were almost hunted to extinction, they were saved by the invention of kerosene.
The Cod fish is also found in the northern Atlantic Ocean and represents a major source of food for people around the world.
- The Indian Ocean
The Indian Ocean is 28,400,130 square-miles in size and spans between the eastern coast of Africa, the coast of the Middle East and India to the north. It separates itself from the Atlantic Ocean by Southeast Asia, and Australia.
This ocean has been a major source of spices for centuries. Black pepper, nutmeg, ginger, and more are harvested from this region.
- The Arctic Ocean
The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the major oceans on the Earth. It is 5,400,025 square-miles and is also the shallowest of the oceans. It is located north of the Eurasia and North America and includes the Hudson Bay and Barents Sea.
For most of the year the ocean is covered in sheets of ice that are over a mile thick. Despite the conditions, this area has been the home of the Inuit, Sami, and Nenet tribes. It took until the 19th and 20th centuries to finally chart a path through this icy ocean for trade.
- The Southern Ocean
For a vast majority of history the waters around Antarctica were thought to be part of the other surrounding oceans. In 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization agreed that these waters should be classified as the Southern Ocean. The boundaries are still being drawn, but the accepted size is roughly 7,848,299 square-miles.
This ocean connects the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans with an eastern current that is responsible for a number of Earth’s weather patterns.
With knowledge of the seven continents and the five oceans on the Earth, you have a far better understanding of the world’s structure and scale. Stay tuned to The Time Now as we continue to explore everything there is to know about this world we inhabit, and how we’ve managed to map it all out.