The Continental Crisis

Daniel Lewis - Brazil


October 14, 2015

Paleo_Pliocene_3Ma

How many continents are there really? In the US were taught 7, Australia getting one all to itself, in Brazil, they are taught 6, because North and South America are just The Americas, and in much of the EU (and for the Olympic Committee) there are only 5 (sorry Antarctica, your 4,490 people didn’t make the cut). But could it be that Brazil just decide to wipe a whole continent out of its collective conscious and that Europe mentally exploded two others. Or maybe we, the US, just conjured up some land out of nothingness? It’s all possible, but I think not. Because for something so basic (as you will see, it’s not really that basic) and so fundamental to our dissection of the world, there’s got to be a right answer, right.

I began to ponder this geological conundrum during my second week in Brazil. I had asked a Panamanian friend of mine whether Central America was part of North or South America. I was genuinely curious, I wasn’t sure (my geography skills have always been less than optimal. I thought Portugal was in South America until the 8th grade). But this specific Panamanian (no names shall be divulged as to conceal his identity amongst my plethora of Panamanian friends) insisted that it was part of neither 🙀, that Panama was indeed in Central America (1 geography point for Daniel) but that Central America was actually part of a secret collective hidden from the populous of The United States called The Americas. And thus began The Continental Crisis.

Let me preface this next part by saying we were both wrong. When my Panamanian friend pressed forward with his seemingly heretical geography I countered with geology; “the continents are split up based upon tectonic plates.” I said, pulling words out of my bum. But I was wrong, as bum-speak usually is. My Panamanian friend responded by saying that the only reason North America and South America were separate at all was because the US made it that way, by slicing through Panama (What a coincidence!). While his history was right, his continental logic was also wrong. Because in matters of history and opinion, which the splitting of the continents stupidly is, there is no right. Our divvying up of the continents is not a science, it is not a fact, but shouldn’t it be?

I repeated this same continental conundrum yesterday with a Brazilian friend so I decided to try and get to the bottom of it. My journey began with some Latin.

The word continent is derived from the Latin terra continens: a connected and continuous tract of land. So already, by definition, both my Panamian friend and I were both wrong as neither of us had considered Asia and Europe as one continent even though they are continuous, connected and quite large as well (comprising 37.3% of the worlds land mass). By our Latin definition, we have Eurasia, But if you look closely you might notice there is this 20.4 other percent of the world that is both connect and continuous with Asia: Africa. So now we have Afro-Eurasia, but wait, there’s more! Because, and my Panamanian friend was right on this part, both North and South America are continuous and connected as well, more or less. So now we are at a grand total of four continents, by definition: The Americas, Afro-Eurasia, Antarcitca and Australia (this method doesn’t really know what to do with islands so, you know, sorry New Zealand). But this method is also useless because we are left with a system of classification that classifies absolutely nothing. Again, there must be a better way. Maybe science can come to save the day. plate-tectonics



A brief geology lesson 

Tectonic plates are big ol’ rocks floating beneath the crust of the earth in which everything we know and love rests on. And lucky for us, tectonic plates are definitive (more or less) and won’t be changing anytime soon (yes, they move but we move with them!). There are a grand total of seven major tectonic plates: the North American plate, the South American plate, the Eurasian Plate, the African Plate, the Indo-Australian Plate, the Antarctic Plate and the Pacific Plate (pretty much the Pacific Ocean). There are also a set of 9 minor plates, only two of which cover significant land mass: the Caribbean Plate and the Arabian Plate. So if we defined ‘continents’ by geological terms we would be left with eight. Before we move on, I should probably elaborate on the previously stated ‘more or less’ pertaining to the permanence of tectonic plates.

The Indo-Australian plate has some problems. Recent geological activity has suggested that either a) the one plate is actually two and they are beginning to separate, b) the two haven’t been together for over 3 million years or c) a third plate, the Capricorn Plate, is forming in between the two. So pretty much, we don’t know nearly as much as we thought about what goes on under our feet. But it still stands, if/when they separate, we would have one more continent by our geological definition. But for now, we can settle with the science we have, we can settle with 8: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Antarcitca, Indo-Australia, Arabia, and Carribea(?). The continent of Indo-Australia would cover the southern half of India, all of Australia and most of the islands in between. Arabia would cover most of the Arabian peninsula and Caribbea would cover, you guessed it, the Caribbean, as well as much of Central America. The smaller plates that cover very little land mass would be merged with the adjacent continent in which they share the largest border.

So we’re done, it’s settled, there are eig–no, see the problem here is that there isn’t even a full consensus among geologists on exactly how many plates there are. As I mentioned with the Indian and Australian plates, things are moving, crushing and quaking their way into different shapes and sizes all the time. Because these shifts are destined to happen, all of our models will be screwed eventually. So here’s my real conclusion, there should be 6 continents (I hope you enjoyed the now useless geology lesson of the above two paragraphs!): North America, South America, Eurasia, Antarctica, Africa and Oceania. They may not all be by definition separate or even together and they won’t be forever, but each of these are distinct enough, for now, that they deserve their own place in our geographical lexicon. So come on world, get your continents together (I mean separate, uggh, you get it.)

Most of the above information comes from the Continent Wikipedia page. I truly hope no one had any reason to screw around with that one.

Daniel Lewis