Geography Facts about the World’s Continents

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Continents are generally defined as a large, continuous landmass that is separated from other landmasses by oceans or other significant natural barriers (Lewis and Wigen 1997).  This definition of a continent helps to helps separate a continent like Australia, which is also technically a very large island from other landforms like smaller islands or peninsulas.

This definition, however is not absolute.

Continents, by some geographers and geologists, can be defined by geological or regional criteria. For example, one definition of a continent is based on its position on a tectonic plate. The Indian subcontinent is part of the Asian continent because they both reside on the Eurasian tectonic plate.

Historical and cultural factors can play a role in how some geographers define the number of continents, which is why Europe and Asia are often considered separate continents despite sharing the Eurasian tectonic plate.

How Many Continents are There?

Depending on how they are divided, the total number of continents in the world depends on the division used.  

Four continent model

The minimum number of continents is four: Afro-Eurasia, America, Antarctica, and Australia.  This is known as the four continent model, categorizing the Earth’s landmasses that classifies them into these four primary continents, all surrounded entirely by water.

This model takes a structuralist view of the Earth’s landmasses, focusing on the large, contiguous areas separated the significant natural barrier formed by the world’s oceans. In this perspective, Europe, Asia, and Africa are grouped into one supercontinent called Afro-Eurasia, reflecting the fact that these landmasses are part of a contiguous stretch of land. Likewise, North and South America are combined into a single continent referred to as America.

A map showing the world divided into four main continents. The Americas are shaded in light blue, Europe, Africa, and Asia form Acro-Eurasia and is shaded in light orange. Australia is shaded light green and Antarctica is shaded in light gray.
Map of the four continent model. Map: Caitlin Dempsey, Sphere Natural Earth map projection. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Seven continent model

Different combinations of recognizing Africa, Europe, and Asia as separate continents alters the number up to a total of seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.  

In this model, Europe and Asia are considered separate continents, even though they are part of the same tectonic plate, largely due to historical and cultural differences. Similarly, North America and South America are classified as distinct continents, separated by the narrow Isthmus of Panama.

Map showing the different continents in light shades of color for a total of seven continents.
Map showing the seven continent model. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Other combination models of the continents

Depending on how the continents are recognized, there can be anywhere from 4, 5, 6, or 7 continents in total. The animated GIF below shows how each of these continental models can add up to a different total number of continents.

Continental_models

Some organizations such as the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee exclude recognition of Antartica since it’s not inhabited.

What is the largest continent?

The continent of Asia has the largest area on Earth with a total area of 44.6 million square kilometers.  Africa is the second largest continent in terms of size with a total area of 30.4 million square kilometers.

What is the smallest continent?

The smallest continent is Australia with a total landmass of 8.5 million square kilometers. Even though the size of Australia as a continent is relatively small compared to the other continents, it’s surrounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, meeting the criteria for a continent as a significant landmass that is isolated by a natural barrier.

What is the most populated continent?

The continent of Asia contains the highest population of all the continents.  Africa is the second most populated continent.

Table of Continent Size and Populations

ContinentArea (km2)Area (mi2)Percent of World Landmass2021 population estimatesPercent of Total World Population
Asia44,614,00017,226,00029.60%4.7 billion60%
Africa30,365,00011,724,00020.20%1.4 billion17%
North America24,230,0009,360,00016.40%600 million7.60%
South America17,814,0006,878,00011.90%430 million5.60%
Antarctica*14,200,0005,500,0009.40%00%
Europe10,000,0003,900,0006.80%750 million9.80%
Oceania (Australia)8,511,0003,286,0005.70%40 million0.50%
* Antarctica is the only continent with no permanent human population.

The data used for this table is from: “World Population Prospects”World Population Prospects, the 2022 Revision. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

The data used for this table is from: “World Population Prospects”World Population Prospects, the 2022 Revision. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

References

Lewis, Martin W.; Kären E. Wigen (1997). The Myth of Continents: a Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 21.

Related resources:

Continents and Population Density: learn about the size and populations of each of the world’s continents.  A basic worksheet for students to identify different continents and calculate population density for each of them.

More Geography Articles of Interest

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!
Email: