Do The Continents Really move?

Yes, the continents and oceans are constantly moving on the Earth’s crust. More than 200 million years ago, the continents were joined in one huge land mass, but over millions of years this drifted and separated into the seven main continents we know today: Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, Antarctica, North America, and South America. In the future Earth might have one large continent.

Plates move between 2-20 cm (0.75-7.75 in) per year – the rate at which fingernails grow.

Land mass

The proportion of land per continent is:

  • Asia 30 per cent
  • Africa 20 per cent
  • North America 16 per cent
  • South America 12 per cent
  • Antarctica 9 per cent
  • Europe 7 per cent
  • Australia 6 per cent

In numbers

The percentage of the Southern Hemisphere above water.

The percentage of land area that lies in the Northern Hemisphere.

70 km
(43 miles) The maximum thickness of the continental (land) plates.

The percentage of Antarctica permanently under ice.

Tell me more: inside the Earth

Inside the Earth - Earth's structure and Earth's layers
Inside the Earth – Earth’s structure and layers.

Crust: There are two types — continental crust (land) and the thinner oceanic crust (sea floor).

Mantle: A thick layer of rock that begins between 5-70 km (3-45 miles) below the surface. Heat rising from the core keeps the mantle moving slowly.

Outer core: At a depth of 5,150 km (3,200 miles), it is made of molten iron with a temperature in excess of 3,980°C (7,200°F).

Inner core: In the solid iron core the temperature reaches 4,700°C (8,500°F).

What’s in a name of continent?

Africa comes from the Latin name of the ancient Roman colony in northern Africa.

Australia comes from the Latin meaning “southern”, as 18th-century explorers hoped to find a giant landmass in the southern oceans.

Europe may be named after princess Europa who appears in Ancient Greek mythology.

Antarctica comes from the Ancient Greek word antarktikos, which means “opposite of the north”.

Asia is first mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus writing about 440 BCE, who said it was named after the Lydian prince Asias. The word may have originally meant “land of the sunrise”.

Violent Earth

Exciting new imaging techniques mean that we can see where the continents are crashing into each other, ripping apart. and where new land is forming.

undersea mountains down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean
Undersea mountains down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Wikipedia

Pulling the ocean apart
Magma rising up into the gap created as the African plate moves east has formed a ridge of undersea mountains down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Red Sea mark where Arabia is breaking away from Africa
Red Sea mark where Arabia is breaking away from Africa

Splitting from Africa
The Red Sea marks the split where Arabia is breaking away from Africa, and is growing wider all the time.

mountains of the Himalayas
mountains of the Himalayas. Credit: Google Maps

Crashing into Asia
The mountains of the Himalayas are the youngest mountains on Earth and are still rising as India crashes into the Eurasian plate.

Hawaii volcanic hotspot
Hawaii volcanic hotspot. Credit: Cornell

Volcanic hotspot
The islands of Hawaii formed over a “hotspot” in the mantle. Unlike many volcanoes, those over hotspots form chains and are not on plate margins.

Blasts from the past

Earth 200 million years ago
Earth 200 million years ago. Credit: California Academy of Sciences

200 million years ago
Many of the continents are locked together in a Iandmass named Pangaea.

Earth 100 million years ago
Earth 100 million years ago. Credit: California Academy of Sciences

100 million years ago
Divergent plates begin to open up the Atlantic Ocean. South America drifts west, Antarctica heads for the South Pole, and India creeps towards Asia.

Earth at present 2020
Earth at present 2020. Credit: California Academy of Sciences

India is in place after colliding with the Eurasian mainland. Greenland separates from North America, which has a land bridge with South America. Australia drifts in the Pacific Ocean.

Looking through the Earth’s crust

Looking through the Earth's crust
Looking through the Earth’s crust. Credit Credit: Kay Lancaster

This cross-section through the crust along the Equator shows how the continents fit together, and the rises and falls of Earth’s surface.

You won’t believe it!

The deeper down inside the Earth a tunnel goes, the hotter it becomes. The deepest gold mines in South Africa have to be cooled down artificially so that people are able to work in them.