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Definition: Continent from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

One of the earth's largest masses of land. Found above sea level, continents are made of connecting tectonic plates and are often surrounded by major bodies of water. There are seven landmasses currently recognized as continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica.

Summary Article: continent from The Columbia Encyclopedia

largest unit of landmasses on the earth. The continents include Eurasia (conventionally regarded as two continents, Europe and Asia), Africa, North America, South America, Australia, and Antarctica.

Geographic Distribution of the Continents

More than two thirds of the continental regions are in the Northern Hemisphere, rimming the Arctic Ocean. South America and Africa project into the Southern Hemisphere as southward-pointing triangles, forming extensive peninsular regions separating the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. In addition, the continents are generally antipodal to the ocean basins (i.e., ocean basins are found on the opposite side of the earth from continental masses). For example, there is an antipodal relationship between the continental Antarctic region and the Arctic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean lies opposite Africa and Europe. The continental areas above sea level comprise about 29% of the earth's surface. However, from a geological point of view, a submerged continental shelf is also part of a continent. Inclusion of the shelf area increases the extent of the continents to 35% of the globe. The earth's average land elevation is c.2,700 ft (820 m) above sea level; the highest point is the summit of Mt. Everest at 29,029 ft (8,848 m); and the lowest point is the shore of the Dead Sea at c.1,400 ft (425 m) below sea level.

Geology and Topography of the Continents

Geologically and topographically the continents are exceedingly complex and variable in detail, yet certain large-scale structural and topographic features appear to be common to all. The continents are composed mainly of granitic rocks and measure an average of 25 mi (40 km) thick. Underlying the ocean are denser basaltic rocks measuring about 4 mi (7 km) thick. Basaltic rocks may also form the lower portions of the continental crust in many regions. The upper and lower crust zones deform by different mechanisms; the upper crust is brittle and deforms by faulting (see fault) while the lower crust is ductile and capable of flow. The crust and the solid upper mantle form the lithosphere.

Plateaus, Shields, and Mountains

Generally, the continents contain vast interior plains or plateaus, underlain by a basement complex of igneous and metamorphic rocks of Precambrian age. In some places, the basement complex is exposed at the surface, where it is often called the shield, or craton. The interior of shield areas contain some of the oldest rocks known on the earth's surface. The Canadian Shield area of E Canada is the exposed basement complex of North America. Portions of shield areas are covered with veneers of flat-lying sedimentary rocks of younger age. The interior plains of the continents are frequently bounded on one or more sides by ranges of mountains. These mountains have been intricately folded and faulted. They also display abundant evidence of volcanic activity, large-scale igneous intrusions, and deformation structures associated with convergent plate movement. In the United States the folded Appalachian Mts. lie to the east of the interior plains and were caused mainly by the collision of two continents. The Rocky Mts. are to the west, formed by huge igneous masses that pushed upward through overlying sedimentary rocks, which were then eroded away.

Floating Continents and Isostasy

Evidence indicates that part of the mantle below the crust consists of semifluid rocks on which the continents and ocean basins, in effect, are floating. A condition of gravitational balance, called isostasy, exists between different parts of the earth's crust. The theory of isostasy claims that the continental crust floats higher than the oceanic crust because the former is composed of a thick layer of lower density rocks while the latter is composed of a thin layer of higher density rocks. Isostatic adjustments to changes in mass distribution on the earth's surface associated with plate interactions may occur through flow of semifluid materials deep in the earth. These materials cause a compensatory uplift of mountains and plateau areas as erosion wears them down. The mass of eroded material is added to and thus depresses the continental shelves and the ocean floor. Adjustments also accompany such changes as the growth and melting of continental ice sheets.

Theories of Continental Formation

The oldest continental rocks dated by radioactivity are 3.98 billion years old, which suggests that the continents and oceans are probably permanent features of the earth's surface. Although the continental regions have been periodically covered by shallow seas, they appear never to have been the sites of deep oceans. How the continents originated has been a major debate in geology. The 19th-century geologist J. D. Dana proposed the continent accretion theory where the continents have always been stationary, with the gradual addition of new material around a central nucleus. Another theory was called the continental assimilation hypothesis, where the ocean areas accumulate the denser elements, then subside to form basins. In the late 19th cent., George Darwin proposed that the moon was gravitationally extracted from the Pacific Ocean, with the earth eventually redistributing into oceanic and continental crusts. In 1925, the expansion of the earth hypothesis stated that the present continents split apart as the earth expanded, noting that the continents could cover a sphere half the surface area of the present earth. Accepted theory now points to continental drift and seafloor spreading as a result of plate tectonics.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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