Continents as World Divisions

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On the Statoids site, the hierarchy of areas into which the world is divided starts with the world itself and has over 200 countries at the next level. Some people would prefer to see another level in between them. The continents seem like a natural intermediate level of subdivisions. The idea is attractive at first glance, but trying to work out the details reveals the flaws in the scheme. You may have learned seven continents in school: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. On the other hand, if you went to school in Europe, you may well have learned that America was one continent, encompassing both north and south. Then, some sources add Oceania, to account for the Pacific islands.

How did they decide where to draw the line between islands and continents? Often, logic doesn't count for much against tradition. But, logically, you could list all landmasses on earth in decreasing order of area; find the ratio of the area of each landmass to the next smaller one. If there were a quantum leap from one type of landmass to another, that quantum gap would have the largest ratio. And it turns out that the largest ratio is between the area of Australia and the area of Greenland, a factor of 4.23. That justifies calling Greenland the largest island and Australia the smallest continent. The second-largest ratio is between Greenland and New Guinea (2.71).

Asia and Europe look like one big landmass. When the ancient Greeks were naming the continents, they were barely aware of a land route around the Black Sea. For them, going from Greece to Persia, they took it for granted that they would cross water: the Aegean, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, or the Black Sea. Later geographers decided that the border between Asia and Europe would be defined by the crest line of the Ural Mountains, and the crest line of the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. But the crest line itself is ill-defined. Imagine starting at the Black Sea and looking for the crest line of the Caucasus range. You might see a small mountain near the shore, and, a few miles down the coast, a higher mountain that's farther inland. Would you head for the small mountain or the higher mountain first? If you went to the summit of the small mountain, would you then head toward the higher mountain aforementioned, or look around to see if there was one higher still?

You could also look at watersheds. But that presents other problems. There was dispute about whether Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 winter Olympics, is in Europe or Asia. There are rivers that flow from the Caucasus Mountains to the Black Sea south of Sochi (Mzymta River) and north of Sochi (Shakhe River).

And how about islands? Great Britain is traditionally considered part of Europe. So is Iceland. But Iceland is closer to Greenland than to the nearest part of Europe (which is in Norway, if you only count the mainland; Great Britain, if you count it; or the Faroe Islands, if you count them as part of Europe). The ancient Greeks said Cyprus was Asian. The nearest mainland to Cyprus is in the Asian part of Turkey. Some people nowadays argue that Cyprus should be European. One reason they give is that it belongs to the European Union; but the European Union is certainly not coextensive with Europe. There may be partisan feelings involved. Cyprus is divided between a Turkish and a Greek sphere of influence. The Greeks probably want to consider Cyprus part of Europe, and the Turks, part of Asia.

In the Atlantic Ocean, some islands are fairly close to a continent (the Bahamas, the Cape Verde Islands). Others are much farther: Bermuda, the Azores, and St. Helena. Should they be assigned to a separate category, Atlantic Ocean Islands? It would be a rather small one. The Azores are part of Portugal, so they have that affinity to Europe. Bermuda is a territory of the U.K., but it's much closer to America than to Europe. St. Helena, likewise, is a British territory, but it's closest to Africa and South America.

There are at least two countries, Russia and Turkey, that are unambiguously divided between Asia and Europe. Georgia, in the Caucasus, has affinities to both Europe and Asia. It has aspirations to join the European Union. The crest line of the Caucasus Mountains, depending on how it's drawn, probably splits Georgia in two. The larger part falls in Asia. The Sinai Peninsula, part of the African country Egypt, is more closely attached to Asia; the Suez Canal divides it from the rest of Africa.

Oceania means different things to different people. For some, it includes Australia. For others, it is limited to Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Indonesia and the Philippines are usually reckoned part of Asia. Papua New Guinea, which shares a long land boundary with Indonesia, is more likely to be grouped with Oceania.

With all these questions to be settled, it would be helpful to have an authority to cite. The best authority available is a standard posted by the United Nations . Its title is "Composition of macro geographical (continental) regions, geographical sub-regions, and selected economic and other groupings". It has some drawbacks. A few areas aren't listed at all. One of them is Antarctica. That poses no problem; we know it's a continent. Another is Taiwan. Presumably that's considered part of China, which is in Asia. The rest are sparsely inhabited small island groups, like Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The regions list also has overlapping regions. For example, it has "Americas" as well as "North America" and "South America".

The U.N. list of regions provides answers to our questions. Not everyone will agree with them, but they're definite, anyway. Russia is assigned to Europe, and Turkey to Asia. The United Kingdom, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland are all in Europe. Cyprus is in Asia. Egypt is in Africa. Bermuda is assigned to North America, but St. Helena to Africa. Georgia is in Asia. Oceania, for the U.N., includes Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific islands. Papua New Guinea is in Oceania, Indonesia in Asia.

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