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largest unit of landmasses on the earthearth,
in geology and astronomy, 3rd planet of the solar system and the 5th largest, the only planet definitely known to support life. Gravitational forces have molded the earth, like all celestial bodies, into a spherical shape.
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. The continents include Eurasia (conventionally regarded as two continents, EuropeEurope
, 6th largest continent, c.4,000,000 sq mi (10,360,000 sq km) including adjacent islands (1992 est. pop. 512,000,000). It is actually a vast peninsula of the great Eurasian land mass.
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 and AsiaAsia
, the world's largest continent, 17,139,000 sq mi (44,390,000 sq km), with about 3.3 billion people, nearly three fifths of the world's total population. Boundaries
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), AfricaAfrica
, second largest continent (2009 est. pop. 1,010,000,000), c.11,677,240 sq mi (30,244,050 sq km) including adjacent islands. Broad to the north (c.4,600 mi/7,400 km wide), Africa straddles the equator and stretches c.
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, North AmericaNorth America,
third largest continent (1990 est. pop. 365,000,000), c.9,400,000 sq mi (24,346,000 sq km), the northern of the two continents of the Western Hemisphere. North America includes all of the mainland and related offshore islands lying N of the Isthmus of Panama
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, South AmericaSouth America,
fourth largest continent (1991 est. pop. 299,150,000), c.6,880,000 sq mi (17,819,000 sq km), the southern of the two continents of the Western Hemisphere.
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, AustraliaAustralia
, smallest continent, between the Indian and Pacific oceans. With the island state of Tasmania to the south, the continent makes up the Commonwealth of Australia, a federal parliamentary state (2005 est. pop. 20,090,000), 2,967,877 sq mi (7,686,810 sq km).
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, and AntarcticaAntarctica
, the fifth largest continent, c.5,500,000 sq mi (14,245,000 sq km), asymmetrically centered on the South Pole and almost entirely within the Antarctic Circle. Geology and Geography

Antarctica consists of two major regions: W Antarctica (c.
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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 oceanocean,
interconnected mass of saltwater covering 70.78% of the surface of the earth, often called the world ocean. It is subdivided into four (or five) major units that are separated from each other in most cases by the continental masses. See also oceanography.
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 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 faultfault,
in geology, fracture in the earth's crust in which the rock on one side of the fracture has measurable movement in relation to the rock on the other side. Faults on other planets and satellites of the solar system also have been recognized.
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) while the lower crust is ductile and capable of flow. The crust and the solid upper mantle form the lithospherelithosphere
, brittle uppermost shell of the earth, broken into a number of tectonic plates. The lithosphere consists of the heavy oceanic and lighter continental crusts, and the uppermost portion of the mantle.
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Plateaus, Shields, and Mountains

Generally, the continents contain vast interior plains or plateaus, underlain by a basement complex of igneous and metamorphic rocks of PrecambrianPrecambrian,
name of a major division of geologic time (see Geologic Timescale, table), from c.5 billion to 570 million years ago. It is now usually divided into the Archean and Proterozoic eons. Precambrian time includes 80% of the earth's history.
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 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 mantlemantle,
portion of the earth's interior lying beneath the crust and above the core. No direct observation of the mantle, or its upper boundary, has been made; its boundaries have been determined solely by abrupt changes in the velocities and character of seismic waves passing
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 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. DanaDana, James Dwight,
1813–95, American geologist, mineralogist, and naturalist, b. Utica, N.Y., grad. Yale, 1833. His studies of the S Pacific, NW United States, Europe, and elsewhere led to changes in ideas on mountain building, volcanism, and the origin of the continents
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 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 driftcontinental drift,
geological theory that the relative positions of the continents on the earth's surface have changed considerably through geologic time. Though first proposed by American geologist Frank Bursley Taylor in a lecture in 1908, the first detailed theory of
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 and seafloor spreadingseafloor spreading,
theory of lithospheric evolution that holds that the ocean floors are spreading outward from vast underwater ridges. First proposed in the early 1960s by the American geologist Harry H.
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 as a result of plate tectonicsplate tectonics,
theory that unifies many of the features and characteristics of continental drift and seafloor spreading into a coherent model and has revolutionized geologists' understanding of continents, ocean basins, mountains, and earth history.
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A protuberance of the earth's crustal shell, with an area of several million square miles and sufficient elevation so that much of it is above sea level.


1. one of the earth's large land masses (Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Antarctica)
2. that part of the earth's crust that rises above the oceans and is composed of sialic rocks. Including the continental shelves, the continents occupy 30 per cent of the earth's surface
3. Obsolete
a. mainland as opposed to islands
b. a continuous extent of land


able to control urination and defecation


the. the mainland of Europe as distinguished from the British Isles