Why Greenland is an Island and Australia is a Continent

The following is an article originally posted by Emily Upton on April 15, 2013 with the title above:

There are several different ways of thinking about how many continents there are, with models ranging from 4 to 7 continents. However, in most English speaking countries, as well as other nations around the world, the 7-continent model is taught. Using this model, the continents of the world in order of size (descending) are: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia.

One of the biggest differences between Australia and Greenland, other than their obvious climate differences, is population. Australia has over 22 million inhabitants, making it the 55th most populous nation in the world. Greenland, on the other hand, has just over 57 thousand inhabitants, making it the 205th most populous nation in the world. However, if population determined continental status, Antarctica would not be considered a continent, either.

Australia and Greenland have quite a few features in common. People living in both countries largely live along the coast due to nearly uninhabitable land covering each of the countries—in Greenland, the natural barrier is an ice cap, while in Australia it’s a desert. Australia is an island in the South Pacific, roughly 7.75 million square kilometers (about 3 million square miles) and the sixth largest country in the world. Greenland is an island that sits between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean. It is just over 2.16 million square kilometers (834K square miles), making it the twelfth largest country in the world. Greenland is the largest island after Australia—so why isn’t it considered a continent, too?

It turns out that there are no official conditions that each continent has to meet in order to be considered a continent, which explains why there are so many different models of thinking when it comes to how many continents there are. However, there are several largely accepted factors that classify different regions of the world as continents. These factors include tectonic independence from other continents, unique flora and fauna, cultural uniqueness, and local belief in continental status.

Looking at Australia and Greenland, Australia meets several of these conditions. Australia rests on its own tectonic plate called the Australian Plate. It certainly has its own unique flora and fauna, with native animals like kangaroos, wombats, and Tasmanian Devils unlike any others in the world. Australia’s historic aboriginal culture is also somewhat unique. Currently, the country is more “Western” in ideology than most other countries in the South Pacific region, making it a unique culture in its area. Lastly, the locals consider themselves to live on both an island and a continent, fulfilling the last of the criteria.

Greenland, on the other hand, sits on the North American tectonic plate. It is not geologically separate from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Although Greenland has fifteen unique species of plants, its fauna, such as reindeer, polar bears, and arctic foxes, can also be found elsewhere, such as in Canada. While Greenland does have its own culture, it is considered part of the larger North American arctic culture. Finally, Greenlanders do not, for the most part, believe that they live on a continent. They consider themselves islanders.

These definitions are shaky, however. Looking at a map of tectonic plates, you can see that Europe sits on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate along with most of Asia. Only cultural difference and a feeling of separateness define it as a separate continent. Similarly, India has its own tectonic plate as well—but in this case, a sense of similar culture and flora and fauna makes India part of Asia rather than its own continent.

It seems that to be a continent, an area must fulfill most of the unofficial criteria above if it doesn’t fulfill it all. In this case, Australia succeeds where Greenland does not, and a line is drawn between what makes the smallest continent and the largest island.

Editor’s note: Clear as mud, but it covers the ground. Or does it? Either way, many thanks to ex-staffer Mark Grosch (now an Adaptive Technology Specialist for Disabled Students Program)  for suggesting this material. N.B.: Check out the bonus facts and the reader’s comments at the end of the article.

PS: Geography Professor and Chair Dan Montello added the following comment about this article: “Contrary to Ms. Upton’s article, most Western geographers do not recognize Australia as a continent, but as part of Oceania, which includes New Zealand, Micronesia, etc. Furthermore, Greenland is not a country at this time, but a territory of Denmark (perhaps changing soon). Finally, tectonic plates are of virtually no use in delimiting continents. The truest part of the article is the implication that the whole concept of continents is borderline incoherent.”

PPS: Geography Emerita Professor Helen Couclelis also waded into the discussion:”Is America(s) one or two continents? Is Europe a continent or a large peninsula of Asia? Does the continent of Europe include the British isles? (Not according to the Brits). Basically, the concept is vague (not ‘incoherent’) but can be sharpened from the perspective of different interests (geopolitical, military, economic, biogeographical, geological, etc.). Europe is often defined as a ‘Culture Area’. One criterion that does make some practical sense is that of the continental shelf (combined with ‘sufficient size’). Viewed this way, Greenland is part of North America, Australia is its own continent, and the rest of Oceania another. The continental shelf of continents helps define that of individual countries, which is of course a much more fraught geopolitical and economic issue. Thanks, Dan, for the interesting comment. Anyone else who would like to pitch in?”

PPPS: Grad student Carlos Baez added the following: “The definition of continents I think is inherently a definition brought about via an agreement in society (or one’s self). There is no rational or rather a priori basis for assigning continental status to a landmass, and so a definition that seemingly works for whatever arbitrary purpose we care about is as far as we can get. (See Pluto and its status as a planet – should size be the only thing that matters?) Beyond that to try answer this question seems to require opening a Costco-sized can of worms (or maybe numerous cans from a Costco case of worm cans). I mean, in conceptualizing continents are we considering each continent as a thematic, functional, or cognitive region? Then, in determining boundaries between continents, are bona fide boundaries between continents necessary, preferable, or even possible? I pose these questions to challenge the idea that there is an objective definition of continents. I mean, it is possible that there are bona fide boundaries between whatever we think are continents (determined of course with respect to some measurable physical or social features – ideally). However, isn’t the selection of the criterion or criteria for determining a boundary arbitrary to begin with? So as to why Australia or Greenland is or isn’t a continent, despite the criterion or criteria that has been put forth, the best answer ultimately might just be ‘because we say so.’”

As the editor said, clear as mud.

Image 1 for article titled "Why Greenland is an Island and Australia is a Continent"
Map of Greenland. Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe (specifically Norway and Denmark, the colonial powers, as well as the nearby island of Iceland) for more than a millennium. In 2008, the people of Greenland passed a referendum supporting greater autonomy; 75% of votes cast were in favor. Greenland is the world’s largest island, over three-quarters of which is covered by the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica. With a population of about 56,480 (2013), it is the least densely populated country in the world. Wikipedia: Greenland