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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  • Yer Pal

    “Australia is the only continent without glaciers.”
    Where are the African glaciers?

    • Emily Upton

      Yer Pal, check out this article on the “melting African glaciers.” The Ruwenzori Mountain glaciers just above the equator in Africa are a source of water for the Nile River. Wikipedia also lists quite a few others in Kenya and Tanzania (at Mount Kilimanjaro).

      http://news.nationalgeographic.com.au/news/2008/03/080325-africa-glaciers.html

      • Yer Pal

        Hi Emily! I read your citation link! Sounds like snow-capped mountains… not really glaciers in the traditional sense. But still… I learned something new! Thank you!

        • Andy

          Of course Africa has glaciers, dozens in fact….no they are not merely snow covered peaks.

  • steven

    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’.
    😀

    • gild

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

  • Jagdosh

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

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  • sed

    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.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @sed: As mentioned in the article, Australia is roughly 7.75 million square kilometers. Greenland is roughly 2.16 million square kilometers. The appearance on the map really has no bearing on that.

      • Jimbo

        @Daven Hiskey. Exactly. You just reiterated Sed’s point with the numbers. “Australia is more than 3 times as big as Greenland” as is easily calculated by the numbers you pulled from the article (2.16 x 3 = 6.48; 6.48 < 7.75). So, "Greenland isn't big, the map distorts it."

  • sed

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

  • Courts

    “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.

    • Jimbo

      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”.

  • Manetta

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

    • Joe

      Sort of when there are researchers living on Antarctica.

  • m dann

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

    • Jimbo

      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.

  • Joe

    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.

  • Ned

    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 .

  • gild

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

  • willo

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

  • Robo

    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!

  • DatStankyHoe

    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

  • abba

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

  • Liat

    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.

  • Frank

    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.

  • Keith C Cannon

    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.

  • raja

    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.

  • Billy

    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.

  • Billy

    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.

    • Dashone Williams

      There no truths to your comments but God did not intend for humans to destroy his creations(cultures) and create there own greedy, self absorbed, unhuman like behavior out of seeking power to fuel their need for animalistic behavior….not human behavior….just think most cultures are very family and community oriented. Call it for what it is and not Sweeten it up to justify the animalistic behaviors.
      Even the writers and producers of Star Trek understood the need to leave a culture and group of people unchanged during their explorations! 🙂
      So please stop with the ignorant comments.
      Stick to the topic at hand.

  • Billy

    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.

  • Billy

    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.

    • Paul Jones

      Mozambique.

  • Jacq

    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.

  • Stuart Harlan Doblin

    “What is a Continent?”

    I thought ‘New Science’ with the discovery of tectonic plates and their boundaries and assets had erased all the meaning of the question, and that the term, ‘continent’ was no longer applicable.

    Q: “What is an island?”

    A: “Any body of land surrounded by water. The Island of Garbage in the Pacific, scientifically referred to as the, “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” would suffice for me, to qualify as an : “island” : in word, if not in-deed(fact).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch

    “For many people, the idea of a “garbage patch” conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes.

    The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

    While oceanographers and climatologists predicted the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it was a racing boat captain by the name of Charles Moore who actually discovered the trash vortex. Moore was sailing from Hawaii to California after competing in a yachting race. Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship.”

    Link: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch

  • Michael King

    Despite the assertations of the author, the Island of Australia is not in the South Pacific. It is on the border of the Pacific (South) and the Indian Oceans.
    The Island of Australia is the mainland of Australia.
    When you add in the not insignificant island of Tasmania, you get the country and continent of Australia.

    Hope this clears up the confusion.

  • Michael King

    I would also add that since the tectonic plate containing Australia includes New Guinea then we do have glaciers.

  • Ian Morton

    New Zealand which is part of Oceania which in theory includes Australia has 2 well known glaciers

  • C.D.Carney

    You want to know why Greenland isn’t a continent just look at the picture. Not the Mercator projection which heavily distorts the globe because our Earth is a slightly obese sphere and not capable of being seen properly on a flat map. The true size of Greenland is about 1/4 the size of Australia. https://img.buzzfeed.com/buzzfeed-static/static/2014-12/29/0/enhanced/webdr07/enhanced-buzz-31968-1419829282-8.jpg Also Greenland is attached to the North American tectonic plate and not its own like the Indo-Australian plate. http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/tectonic.gif While this does bring up another point- why is Europe considered a continent that stops at the Urals and not one big Eurasian continent, you can say that’s just because it’s been that way since the beginning of human history.