Why Greenland is an Island and Australia is a Continent

australiaToday I found out why Greenland is an island and Australia is a continent.

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 kilometres (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 kilometres (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 defines 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.

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Bonus Facts:

  • In the four-continent model, the continents are the America, Antarctica, Africa-Eurasia, and Australia.
  • While it is well known that Australia is part of Britain’s Commonwealth, it might come as a surprise to learn that Greenland is officially part of Denmark, but rules itself autonomously.
  • Only 410,000 square kilometres of Greenland are not covered by ice. The Australian deserts cover over a million square kilometres of the country.
  • Australia is the only continent without glaciers.
  • While Australia is significantly larger than Greenland, Greenland often appears larger on maps because of the distortion caused by proximity to the North Pole.  A similar effect can be observed with Alaska.
  • Dorothy Parker, a writer, is often credited with saying, “I once was the toast between two continents: Greenland and Australia.” However, as Greenland is not a continent, it is believed that the words have been twisted with time, and that originally she mentioned “Asia and Africa” instead.
  • 84% of Greenlanders live in urban areas, while 89% of Australians live in urban areas.
  • Greenland has only one major city: its capital, Nuuk.
  • The ethnic makeup of the two countries is polarizing: Greenland’s population is 89% Inuit and 11% Danish, while Australia’s population is 92% white, 7% Asian, and only 1% Aboriginal.
  • There are nearly 6 migrants leaving Greenland per 1000 people. In Australia, there are nearly 6 migrants entering the country per 1000 people.
  • The word “continental” often excludes islands. “Continental Europe” excludes Great Britain, Ireland, and Iceland; “Continental United States” excludes Hawaii (and sometimes Alaska); and “Continental Australia” would exclude the state of Tasmania.
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  • “Australia is the only continent without glaciers.”
    Where are the African glaciers?

  • Sadly, Australia is and has been just an island for awhile now. It may be the largest land mass of, but still only part of OCEANIA. (Some continue to use Australia and some Australasia)

  • “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.”

    What similar culture? And with Whom? Whatever, we think of (& often refer to) India as ‘sub-continent’.

    • India has kind of similar culture with pakistan ,srilanka,nepal,bangladesh…so all of them together are called the indian subcontinent.

  • Hi… I want to know how the African desert created spy sahara

  • Uhhhhh… also the fact that australia is more than 3 times as big as Greenland, you do realize the mercator projection is very distorted

    Greenland LOOKS like it’s the same size as africa, but africa is 14 times bigger.

    Greenland isn’t big, the map distorts it.

  • And also australia shares a tectonic plate with india, it does NOT have it’s own plate

  • “Greenland is the largest island after Australia—so why isn’t it considered a continent, too?”

    Australia is not an island. Greenland is the largest island in the world as indicated by the Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources. Also the definition of an island is a land mass surrounded by water AND not a continent. If Australia is an island so would be Antartica.

    • So basically your argument is “because the Encyclopedia Britannica” says so. The fact that reference materials classify one of the places as an island and the other as a continent without any clearcut definitional justification was the whole point of the article. ALL complete land masses on the globe are surrounded by water. And using a claim to support itself doesn’t fly. i.e., Greenland is “not a continent”, because the definition of an island is [a land mass surrounded by water and] “not a continent’. Both Greenland AND Australia are land masses surrounded by water. The rest of the definition is just that the land mass is “not a continent”.

  • So Greenland has a small population but so does Antarctica. Can you even say that Antarctica has a population?

  • Australia is the biggest piece of land in the world surrounded by water end of story

    • That’s absurd. It is the smallest continent. Yes, on the 7 continent model, some continents are connected by land, but that only makes the “piece of land… surrounded by water” larger, as is the case with the 4 continent model. America (North and South) is a piece of land several times larger than Australia. Africa-Eurasia is even larger. Even Antarctica, which shouldn’t take any stretch of the imagination to see as a “piece of land… surrounded by water,” is larger than Australia.

  • Of course Australia is going to be more Western in ideology if they were ruled by Britain and ended up having thousands of immigrants come over and discriminating on the aboriginals. That is the only reason it be more unique in culture because they do not have the Pacific Polynesian type of culture and making English official. So that I think is the worst reason why it is a continent and not just considered an island of Asia for example. If Denmark had killed off the Inuits and only Danish were living, would it be considered part of Europe then? I assume its kind of Western in ideology too for being part of Denmark.

  • An extremely well written, obviously well researched, and enjoyable article. My compliments to Emily Upton. I am a 60 year young public school teacher of 36 years and I have wondered about this many times; you thoroughly explained it .

  • The reason why australia is a continent is also becos it has a varied climatic zone….it has a medditeranean type of climate too.

  • australia is referred to as a continent and an island, not just a continent

  • Australia – is continent, because it is distinct landmass – that’s ONLY what continent is – sticking “oceania” in suddenly, as a “continent” breaks convention regards every other definition of a continent and therefore fails outright!

  • About the Europe point, the Eastern Border of Europe is the Ural mountain range. So it’s not like it doesn’t fit a physical boundary qualifier

  • what about the Arabian Peninsula? It sits on its own tectonic plate too

  • And if you look at Antartica, it looks way bigger in maps, even bigger than Russia, but as it was explained before, it’s just because it IS in the South Pole. I find these distortions interesting.

  • Just a clarification -The Commonwealth was once called The British Commonwealth but hasn’t been for quite a few decades. While the Queen is head of the Commonwealth this gives her no legal standing in Commonwealth countries. In some Commonwealth countries (eg Australia) the Queen is head of state, in some (eg India), not. Most Commonwealth countries were once British colonies, but others were not. In theory any country can join the Commonwealth.

  • Why is Greenland not a continent? Because most of it is under water…. frozen water, but water none the less. Continent s are areas above water, the term was devisef to denote mainland as opposed to Island areas. Continental Shelves are not part of continents, they their own discreet area.

  • Australia is part of Asia. Asia extends from middle east to japan, why not Australia considered as ASIA?. English people want to hide the history that they brutally killed the native people and occupied Australia, so they created it as a continent as they had the power and influence to do so. The native Australian people were genetically same as Asians. If it is part of Asia then it will be a ever raising question how the the whites ended up living ASIA so a new continent is created.

  • Regarding the glacier comment – if you look at the Australian tectonic plate, at least half of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia’s Western Papua province are on the same plate. These areas have mountain glaciers (although shrinking), so the Australian continent (in terms of tectonic boundaries) does in fact have glaciers.
    Also, if you look at the political entity known as Australia, it includes Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean which also has glaciers. And again, Australia’s Antarctic Territory (the largest territory on that continent compared to other countries’ territorial claims) is covered in glaciers.

  • Australia’s aborigines are no where near being genetically the same as Asians – have you no idea about biology and culture? They may be similar to the original inhabitants of Asia, such as the Anu of Japan and other pre-Asian cultures of the Philippines, Indonesia, and other south-east Asian areas, as well as some South Pacific islands, but they are more similar to Africans than the current Asian population.

    Neolithic cultures throughout the world, from North and South America to Australia and the South Pacific, and Africa, have been conquered and pretty much destroyed by more advanced cultures from Europe and, to some degree, from Asia. This is the way of the world. This is the nature of the human animal. The strong and better equipped take over those people who are not so strong and less technologically developed. This has happened throughout the history of modern humans (possibly causing the extinction of the Neanderthals and other humanoid species in Asia and the rest of the world).

    If the English hadn’t colonised Australia you can be sure that another European colonial power would have done so, such as the Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russians, or even the Germans. And if not the Europeans, then the Chinese or Japanese would have eventually gone down to Australia and taken over the continent. This is how the world works.

    Only in the last hundred years have the Europeans had the sense and decency to acknowledge the existence of other cultures that they have colonised, and the detrimental effects that colonisation has had on these cultures.

  • Keith,

    Yes, continents are above water, that is SEA-LEVEL water. Greenland is covered in ice, which comes from millennia of snow falls and some rain. That is fresh water from precipitation, i.e. rain and snow. That has nothing to do with determining whether a land mass in a continent or an island.

    So Greenland IS an island, even though it is covered in frozen water. All that frozen water is above sea level as glaciers flowing into the sea. Glaciers can be seen as rivers of ice slowly flowing into the sea.

    As for continental shelves not being part of continents, just wait for the next ice age, which will occur regardless of the global warming currently plaguing the planet, when sea levels drop significantly (as much 100 or 200 metres or more). This could see the British Isles and Ireland again becoming part of the European mainland, Australia and New Guinea and Tasmania becoming one land mass above sea level, and probably many other areas, once separated by the sea, having a land bridge between them.

  • ALL current Commonwealth countries were once British colonies, regardless of their current political standing. This includes all African British colonies, all Indian sub-continent colonies, all south-east Asian colonies, and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other South Pacific colonies. ALL countries within the Commonwealth were once British colonies, even if they are independent countries now.

    Please give an example of a Commonwealth country that was never a colony of the British Empire.

  • The question “Why Greenland is an Island and Australia is a Continent” is wrong. Australia is not a continent as it is part of the Oceania Continent.

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