Planet Earth is home to 7.3 billion people and over 1.5 million different species of animals, insects, and plants spread across 7 continents. Earth was not always comprised of seven continents. A billion years ago, the world would have been much different being made of much more water than we have today. 225 million years ago the seven continents were all connected into one supercontinent surrounded by a very large ocean. This supercontinent is known as Pangaea. It slowly drifted apart into 7 different pieces and drift into the positions we find them in the present over millions of years. But, the continents are not at rest. They are always moving and over time will move and drift into entirely new continents over the next several hundred million years.
What is a Continent?
Though there are many definitions of the term “continent,” it is generally used to identify large distinct landmasses that make up our planet’s surface. The world’s land in total has over 57 million square miles of land according to the National Geographic Society. What we know as earth’s land is actually the areas that happen to be at a high enough elevation to not be flooded by the lakes, rivers, and oceans of the world which surround them. The continents’ shapes and boundaries are ever-changing due to the movement of the tectonic plates (known as plate tectonics). As the water surrounding them defines the land that makes up the continent. It is important to remember the five oceans of the world, as the continents make up just 1/3rd of the planet’s surface.
What are the 7 Continents of the World?
Today, we have seven continents on planet Earth surrounded by five oceans. Each of the seven continental land masses is diverse and distinctly unique with its own plants, animals, deserts, mountains, rivers, lakes, cultures, and weather.
A continent is larger than an island and is usually made up of multiple countries and spans millions of square miles.
The 7 continents of the world are North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.Watch What Are the Seven Continents
What is the Smallest Continent and Largest Continent?
The smallest continent is Australia. Its landmass is just under 7.7 million square kilometers, making it about the size of the United States. Australia is home to about 24 million people, which is just over 3% of the world’s population. The continent is made up of a variety of different landscapes, from rainforests and deserts to mountains and beaches. Australian culture is also unique, with a mix of Indigenous, British, and other influences. Australia, though surrounded by water, is not considered an island. The world’s largest island instead is Greenland, which is part of North America.
The largest continent in the world is Asia, which covers an area of 17.2 million square miles. Asia and Africa are often considered for this distinction but it is Asia that is the largest in both landmass and population. The continent is home to the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, as well as many other countries with large populations. Asia is also home to some of the world’s tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, and deepest lakes, such as the Caspian Sea.
Explore more regarding the largest and smallest continent which lists the continents from largest to smallest by population and land area.
How Many Continents Are There? Are there 7 continents or 5 or 6?
There is some debate over whether there are five continents or seven depending on the continent model applied. There are several ways to determine the number of continents. In most English-speaking countries, seven continents are most commonly part of the learning curriculum. The six-continent version is primarily used in Russia, Eastern Europe, and countries that use Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, and other romance languages. The most commonly accepted view is that there are seven continents: Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Africa, Australia (Oceania), and Antarctica. However, some geographers believe that Europe and Asia should be considered as one continent, which would leave only six continents.
Some consider North and South America to be just one large landmass referred to as the “American Continent.” Europe and Asia continent are also combined at times and referred to as “Eurasia.” The continent of Australia is often confused with the country of Australia. The Australian Continent includes Australia (country), Tasmania, New Guinea and others. This region is also referred to as “Oceania,” which includes the previously listed countries as well as New Zealand, Micronesian, and Polynesian islands. Oceania is generally not considered a continent as it does not make up “a single continuous landmass.”
- 5 Continents: Depending on when you went through school and the country where you were educated, you may have learned that there were just 5 continents. Africa, America, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Interestingly, this is why we have five rings to symbolize the Olympic Games
- 6 Continents: In certain countries, it is common for students to learn about just 6 continents. America, Antarctica, Asia, Africa, Australia (Oceania), and Europe. There are some geography experts that acknowledge just 6 continents where the continent of Asia and Europe are combined into a new continent called “Eurasia” as these two continents are one single land mass.
- 7 Continents: The most commonly accepted number of continents is 7. North America, South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia (Oceania), Europe, and Asia.
List of Continents
Below you will find a comprehensive list of the continents that explores each of the continents with a summary. Under each continent in the list, you can follow the link below to learn more!
Land Area of Africa: 11,670,000 (mi²) / 28,489,869 (km²)
The Population of Africa: 1,119,307,147 (2016)
Largest City in Africa: Lagos, Nigeria (15,118,780 (2014))
While Africa is first alphabetically, the whole continent is second in both population and size. Over 1 billion people can call Africa home. The people are spread across 54 different countries in the African continent. This continent is home to 15% of the world’s population and the continent makes up 20% of the total land area on planet earth. The equator passes through the center of the continent which provides largely warm and/or tropical climates. The northern and southern portions of Africa have more temperate conditions. Of the continents of the world, Africa is unique in that it stretches between the northern and southern temperate zones. Africa is also attributed to being the birthplace of mankind. The oldest fossil evidence of Homo sapiens was found in the eastern part of the continent.
Africa’s large size and varying climates make it host to many of the most interesting species of plants and animals on Earth. There are currently more than 7,000 different species of mammals, fish, and birds in Africa. There are more than 100,000 species of insects as well. Here you can find both the largest ( African Elephant) and tallest (Giraffe) animal.
There are several bodies of water surrounding the continent of Africa. You can find the Indian Ocean to the southeast, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Red Sea to the northeast. The continent of Europe and Africa are very close together. They are only 8.9 miles(14.3 km) apart on the northwest corner of Africa. At 4,352 miles long, the Nile River is the longest river in the world and runs along the northeast side of the continent.
More on Africa.
Land Area of Antarctica: 5,405,000 (mi²) / 12,949,940 (km²)
The Population of Antarctica: 4,912 (2015)
Largest City in Antarctica: McMurdo Station (1,258 (2013))
The continent of Antarctica is positioned as the southernmost land mass on Earth. The South Pole can be found here among its large permanent glaciers and frigid weather. Even though Antarctica has one of the harshest climates and most unwelcoming terrains on planet Earth, there are still nearly five thousand people that temporarily call this continent home every year. This makes Antarctica the least populated continent on Earth. Antarctica is known as the coldest landmass and has few native plants or animals because most of the continent is covered in sheets of ice that can be more than a mile thick which forms permanent glaciers. You can find penguins, seals, plants, and fungi in Antarctica. Interestingly, this continent is the only one that has no reptiles on its land surface.
Antarctica is the 5th in terms of size compared to the other 7 continents. Both Australia and Europe could fit in the same area that Antarctica covers. The continent is known for being extremely dry and geologically unique which qualifies it as the largest desert region in the world. Antarctica has one of the windiest and coldest climates of the world’s continents. Temperatures can reach −90°C (−130 °F) in some regions of the continent. Any humans that live here primarily operate from various research stations scattered across the landscape.
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Land Area of Asia: 17,210,000 (mi²) / 44,029,797 (km²)
The Population of Asia: 4,494,302,221 (2016)
Largest City in Asia: Tokyo, Japan (37,126,000 (2012))
The Asian continent covers nearly 9 percent of the earth’s surface making it the largest of the continents. It is also the home to the most people with an estimated population of 4.3 billion as of 2015 which represents nearly 60% of the world’s population. With this many people, Asia is attributed with being a vital part of the world’s economy. Asia’s diversity means that more than 2,300 languages are spoken, the most of any continent. Asia covers nearly 10% of the planet’s surface area and is loosely defined as the eastern portion of the Eurasia continent with the border following a line north from the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea to the NW corner of the Caspian Sea to the Ural River into the Arctic Ocean. The continent is primarily positioned within the northern hemisphere along the eastern portion. On the eastern border, you will find the Pacific Ocean, along the southern border you will find the Indian Ocean, and you can find the Arctic Ocean along the northernmost border. Asia is credited with the most coastline of any continent.
Parts of Asia contain some of the oldest civilizations on the continents including the countries of China and Japan. Saudi Arabia’s peninsula with oil-rich countries including the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait is also located in Asia. The continent also includes the manufacturing centers of India and Japan and Hong Kong, which is a leading banking and corporate center.
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Land Area of Australia: 2,970,000 (mi²) / 5,179,976 (km²)
The Population of Australia: 39,901,000 (2016)
Largest City in Australia: Sydney, Australia (4,921,000 (2015))
The continent of Australia includes the mainland of the country Australia and the island regions of New Guinea, Tasmania, and Seram. In total, these different land areas are considered a single continent. This area is referred to as Oceania by geographers. Oceania is further subdivided into areas such as Melanesia, Australasia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. During the ice ages, when much of the world’s water was frozen in glaciers, the Australian mainland was connected by land bridges to these islands. Australia is the smallest of the continents but is home to the sixth largest country which is known by the same name, Australia. The continent gets its name from the Latin word ‘australis’ which translates to mean southern. As a result of the continent’s geography and size, it is often referred to as an “island” continent. Australia is surrounded by two oceans. The Indian Ocean is found on the western side and the pacific ocean is found on the eastern side.
Australia is the most isolated and remote continent and has been least influenced by migrations of people, plants, and animals. This led to Australia having a wide variety of animals and plants which are unique in the world such as the kangaroo, koala, dingo, wallaby, and wombat. Of the 5,700 hundred species of animals on the continent of Australia, more than 80% are unique and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The continent is also home to the world’s largest reef and one of the greatest natural wonders, The Great Barrier Reef.
The continent first was inhabited by man nearly 45,000 years ago. European inhabitants came onto the Australian landmass in the 1700s. Australia is one of the least populated continents yet the country Australia is the 12th largest economy in the world.
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Land Area of Europe: 3,931,000 (mi²) / 7,769,964 (km²)
The Population of Europe: 738,849,000 (2016)
Largest City in Europe: Istanbul, Turkey (14,657,434 (2016))
The western portion of the Eurasian landmass is known as Europe. It is noted as one of the smallest of the 7 continents after Australia, with 7 percent of the world’s landmass. However, Europe is home to about 11% of Earth’s population and is the second most densely populated continent, with 134 people per square mile, behind Asia’s 203 people per square mile.
The European continent is comprised of approximately 50 countries and several other territories. The country of Russia is the largest country and the area that is occupied by Vatican City in Italy is the smallest. However, Russia has portions of its territory in both the continent of Europe and Asia with forty percent falling in the continent of Europe. Europe, by definition, includes the continental mainland ending in the east at the Ural Mountains in Russia. Europe also includes islands such as Iceland, Sicily, and the British Isles. The British Isles consist of the large island that is home to England, Scotland, and Wales, and is called Great Britain; the British Isles also include the small island that contains Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and several much smaller surrounding islands.
There are several bodies of water that surround the continent of Europe. To the south, you will find the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, to the west is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the north is the Arctic Ocean.
Europe has played host to many historic events over the course of history that have left a lasting effect and shaped the continent we know today. People have been living in Europe for about 100,000 years. Around 2000 B.C., Indo-European settlers came and brought the language that most modern European languages are descended from. The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations flourished there, from which we get much of our learning and culture. In the 5th and 6th centuries, the Germanic tribes swept over most of Europe, and their descendants shaped the modern countries of Scandinavia and west and central Europe. By this time the Roman empire had become Christian, and eventually, all of Europe became Christian, for reasons of both faith and economics. The diversity and size of Europe led to the continent hosting much of World War I and World War II.
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Land Area of North America: 9,540,000 (mi²) / 23,309,892 (km²)
The Population of North America: 579,024,000 (2016)
Largest City in North America: Mexico City, Mexico (19,411,000 (2012))
The North American continent is the 3rd largest continent. It includes the countries of Canada, the United States, Greenland, Mexico, and the Latin American regions that serve as a connection between North and South America. North America makes up about 17 percent of the world’s landmass and is home to about 8 percent of the people. The continent is found entirely in the northern hemisphere and is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the West, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.
The population of about 565 million people is situated in about 23 independent countries. The earliest human inhabitants in North America were from Asia and crossed into Alaska over the Bering land bridge during an ice age. The arrival of Europeans occurred in the mid-1600s. This population is now dominant in North America.
North America has a very diverse climate, wildlife, and geography. From extreme desert temperatures in Death Valley to the snow-covered mountains of Mount McKinley to the largest freshwater lake in the U.S. (2nd largest in the world), Lake Superior
North America is responsible for nearly 50% of the world’s corn production and 1/5th of the world’s wheat production. The continent is also an economic juggernaut with the largest GDP per capita of the continents. You can also find the busiest airport in North America at Atlanta International Airport, in Atlanta, Georgia, United States.
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Land Area of South America: 6,888,000 (mi²) / 15,539,928 (km²)
The Population of South America: 414,332,000 (2015)
Largest City in South America: São Paulo, Brazil (21,090,791 (2014))
The South American continent is the southern portion of the larger American continent and is located in the southern hemisphere. The equator passes through the continent offering a tropical climate for much of the landmass with temperate conditions possible in the south. South America is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on its western border and the Atlantic Ocean on its eastern border. This continent is the fourth largest and is made up of twelve countries with Brazil being the largest in terms of both land mass and population.
South America is home to incredible biodiversity. South America includes the Andes Mountains which comprise the longest range of peaks in the world. It is home to the Amazon River, which passes the largest volume of water of any river in the world. You can also find the Amazon rainforest which is the world’s largest rainforest and is host to some of the most unique plants and animals on Earth. The continent is home to llamas and alpacas that originally were wild but became domesticated nearly 5,000 years ago.
The indigenous people of South America may have migrated south from North America although the majority of its current 371 million residents are of European descent. The population lives primarily along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts with large portions of the inland regions hosting small and widely spread populations. Colonization efforts by Spanish and Portuguese explorers ultimately lead to the prevalence of those languages in South America.
More on South America.
What will the Continents Look like in the Future?
The total area of the continents will likely look very different in the future. The area of land will change shape and size as tectonic plates move over the next million years. In the shorter term (hundreds of years), the climate is expected to change and the oceans will rise. Some areas will become uninhabitable, while new land will be created. The borders between countries and territories will also change, as some disappear and others are created. Plants and wildlife will drastically change in order to adapt to these new conditions.
Change is certain, however, humans still have time to slow the pace of change to limit how quickly this change is occurring. An interesting video from American geologist Professor Christopher Scotese that shows the shifting of the continents throughout history and projected outcomes into the future.
Seven Continents Wrap-Up
Each of the continents of the world is unique. Each has its own culture, language, climate, geographic features, and identity. As a result of this diversity, every continent is divided into several countries with the exception of Antarctica (which currently has no countries within its borders.) Currently, there are 195 countries in the world across all continents. Africa is split into 54 countries, Asia 48, Australia/Oceania 7, Europe 51, North America 23, and South America, 12.