How many continents are there?

Come on kids, between us we can crack this. Image: Getty.

Once upon a time, “How many continents are there” was one of those questions with straightforward answers, like “How many colours are in a rainbow” or “what is the weather like in summer”. There are seven. Of course there are seven: all those picture books I had as a kid said there were seven.

Except, it turns out that, as with so many of the things we tell our children, this number owed as much to social convention as it does to objective reality. And social conventions can differ: depending on where you are in the world, there can be anywhere between four and seven continents, and you sometimes don’t have to travel very far to get a different answer.

So, to coin a phrase: what on Earth is going on?

Rules and regulations

First define your continent. The Wikipedia page on the matter contains this helpful explanation:

By convention, “continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water”.

Which sounds simple enough. Except the very next sentence is this:

Many of the seven most commonly recognized continents identified by convention are not discrete landmasses separated completely by water.

Which feels like an unexpected piece of dry humour from an open-sourced encyclopaedia.

But it has a point: it’s the work of all of four seconds to think of vast numbers of ways in which the seven things you almost certainly think of as continents don’t fit this rule. Off the top of my head:

  • Islands like Great Britain are considered part of continents despite not being part of continuous masses of land;

  • North and South America are not discrete masses of land, they’re connected by an isthmus;

  • Neither are Africa and Asia;

  • Europe and Asia aren’t even vaguely separated, they’re quite obviously the same bloody thing;

  • If Europe gets to be a continent because it’s separated from Asia by some mountains and some inland seas, then why is India only a sub-continent?

  • If Australia is a continent why is Greenland only an island? Okay, it’s smaller, but where’s the line? What are the rules here?

And so on and so on.

Spinning plates

There is another way of dividing the Earth up into roughly continent sized bits, which has a rather more scientific basis to it: plate tectonics, the geological theory which explains mountain ranges, volcanoes, and so on by showing how bits of the Earth’s surface have been sliding about and banging into each other for the last few billion years.

In this theory, it’s quite obvious why the Americas are two continents, why Australia is one but Greenland isn’t, and why Africa is a different thing to Asia despite being attached to it. It also highlights a very good reason for considering Britain to be part of Europe: they’re part of the same continental shelf, even if part of that shelf is submerged under water. Despite Brexit, Britain will always be in Europe.

The plates. Click to expand. Image: USGS/Wikimedia Commons.

In many other ways, though, the map of the tectonic plates doesn’t look anything like the map of the continents. For one thing there are a bunch of oceanic ones, which on maps of the world are mostly just water with a few islands in them.

For another, the Middle East and India are their own plates, so aren’t part of Asia; neither is the Russian Far East, which is actually part of the North American plate. Europe, meanwhile, very clearly is part of Asia, except for Iceland, which is half Asian, half North American.

There are good reasons why plate tectonics isn’t going to get us very far in explaining why we mostly think we have seven continents. One is that it’s a surprisingly recent theory: it wasn’t widely recognised by the scientific community until the 1960s, so there are plenty of people around now whose school text books will have laughed at the idea.

Another is that the plate boundaries are often invisible or, at least at the human scale, nonsensical: any system which splits Iceland into two separate continents is not going to be a useful categorisation.


Geography is written by the victors

The real reason we count Europe as a continent and include Britain in it, treat India as a part of Asia, and so forth is (this is where we came in) social convention: we do it because we do.

More than that, we do it because the rules on this stuff were largely formulated by the Europeans who spent much of the last five hundred years or so conquering the world. That’s why Europe is a seen as a single, diverse continent but the Indian subcontinent, with its own patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, isn’t: because the former was the imperial power that conquered the latter.

A related point is that, if you ignore plate tectonics, the entire world doesn’t divide neatly up into continents at all. The reason a huge bunch of Pacific islands get bundled together with Australia as a slightly miscellaneous category called “Oceania” is as much because people wanted to make everything fit in somewhere, as it is because of any real connection between the two.

So those lengthy explanations aside, how many continents actually are there?

Counting continents

There seem to be six different systems, helpfully portrayed in this gif:

A gif of the various models. Click to expand. Image: AlexCovarrubia/Wikimedia Commons.

The seven continent system is the one you’re probably familiar with. That’s the one that’s standard in the English-speaking world, China, south Asia, and parts of western Europe. The British Empire can probably be blamed, at least in part, for its dominance.

There’s also an ultra-stripped down four continent model which divides the world into four major landmasses: Eurasia-Africa, America, Antarctica, Australia. This, best I can tell, isn’t taught anywhere; but it is the logical end point of the definition that involves big bits of land divided by water, so it’s worth including it anyway.

In between there are four other models:

  • A six-continent system in which Europe and Asia are one continent. This, the internet tells me, is the standard in Russia and Eastern Europe (which makes sense, given that the slavic world straddles the Urals), and also Japan (although, citation needed).

  • A different six-continent system treats Europe and Asia as separate, but combines North and South America. That one seems to be favoured in France, much of southern Europe and various places colonised by those countries.

  • There’s also a five continent system which combines the Americas but ignores Antarctica because, to the first approximation, nobody lives there. This is the one favoured by the UN and the International Olympic Committee (count the rings).

  • Lastly, there’s a variant five-continent system consisting of Eurasia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. I can find no reference whatsoever to anyone using this one, but it’s in the gif and also this National Geographic page, so I’m including it for the sake of completism.

So, there you go. The best we can say is that the world has “some continents”. Assuming you accept the notion that continents exist at all.

I’m still really angry at those picture books which promised me snow in winter and heat in summer, incidentally.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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