Quick, how many continents are there? Five? Eight? Why are you asking this dumb question, because it’s obviously seven?
It turns out that this is a much more complicated question than you would think. If you’re like me, and grew up in an English speaking country, the answer is seven. North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. As a child, this was as true to me as the fact that Pilgrims wore buckles on their shoes. Imagine my surprise when I moved to France and they told me that non, there are only six continents! Asia, Europe, America, Africa, and Oceania, and Antarctica. The United Nations only counts five– the same as the French but minus Antarctica, presumably because no one claims the nationality of “Antarctican”.
How is this possible? Why is everyone so confused? Isn’t there a consistent definition for what a “continent” is? Nope. The Glossary of Geology defines a continent as “one of the Earth’s major land masses, including both dry land and continental shelves”. It then goes on to enumerate four major characteristics. This is a true technical definition, but unsurprisingly, the rest of the world hasn’t caught up. (For the record, they agree with the French). Merriam Webster says it’s “one of the six or seven great divisions of land on the globe”. Wikipedia, quoting the Encyclopaedia Britannica, prefers “continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water”. These are problematic, because they all disagree.
The way we define our continents comes down to history and culture. Asia and Europe are seen as different continents because we’ve always seen them that way. North and South America have different enough cultures that we view them as different land masses. History is written by the victors; in this case, the way we view the world has been shaped by Europeans hundreds of years ago.
No matter how many continents you think there are, you should add one more. The Geological Society of America has announced a new continent for cartographers to argue about: Zealandia. Hidden in the ocean off the coast of New Zealand, this new continent is around half the size of Australia. Only six percent of it is above water. Despite the recent press release, the discovery has been in the works for about ten years by researchers Nick Mortimer et al. Continental drift– the explanation of how continents move around the Earth– was only accepted by the scientific community in the 1950s. Isn’t that crazy? We’ve only been studying it for sixty something years, and further exploration of Zealandia will continue to add to our knowledge of how continental drift works.
In addition to the technical know-how gained, this will allow the country of New Zealand to have more political control over the waters around it, and the use of those resources. Maybe this will move New Zealand from “annoying little brother” of Australia to “annoying twin”. For me, personally, the only effect this will have is allowing me to be even more pedantic at cocktail parties.