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Area 24,709,000 km2 (9,540,000 sq mi)
Population 528,720,588 (2008, 4th)
Pop. density 22.9/km2 (59.3/sq mi)[note 1]
Demonym North American, American
Countries 23 (list of countries)
Dependencies see List of North American countries
Languages English, Spanish, French, Greenlandic and many others
Time Zones UTC-10 to UTC
Largest cities List of North American cities by population
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.
North America covers an area of about 24,709,000 square kilometers (9,540,000 square miles), about 4.8% of the planet's surface or about 16.5% of its land area. As of July 2008, its population was estimated at nearly 529 million people across 23 independent states. North America is the third-largest continent in area, following Asia and Africa, and the fourth in population after Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Map of North America, from the 16th century
The Americas are usually accepted as having been named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci by the German cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann. Vespucci, who explored South America between 1497 and 1502, was the first European to suggest that the Americas were not the East Indies, but a different landmass previously unknown by Europeans. In 1507, Waldseemüller produced a world map, in which he placed the word "America" on the continent of South America, in the middle of what is today Brazil. He explained the rationale for the name in the accompanying book Cosmographiae Introductio,
ab Americo inventore ... quasi Americi terram sive Americam (from Americus the discoverer ... as if it were the land of Americus, thus America).
For Waldseemüller, no one should object to the naming of the land after its discoverer. He used the Latinized version of Vespucci's name (Americus Vespucius), but in its feminine form "America", following the examples of "Europa" and "Asia".
Later, when other mapmakers added North America, they extended the original name to it as well: in 1538, Gerard Mercator used the name America to all of the Western Hemisphere on his world map.
Some argue that the convention is to use the surname for naming discoveries except in the case of royalty and so a derivation from "Amerigo Vespucci" could be problematic. Ricardo Palma (1949) proposed a derivation from the "Amerrique" mountains of Central America—Vespucci was the first to discover South America and the Amerrique mountains of Central America, which connected his discoveries to those of Christopher Columbus.
Alfred E. Hudd proposed a theory in 1908 that the continents are named after a Welsh merchant named Richard Amerike from Bristol, who is believed to have financed John Cabot's voyage of discovery from England to Newfoundland in 1497. A minutely explored belief that has been advanced is that America was named for a Spanish sailor bearing the ancient Visigothic name of 'Amairick'. Another is that the name is rooted in a Native American language.
Main article: History of North America
Laurentia is an ancient craton which forms the geologic core of North America; it formed between 1.5 to 1.0 billion years ago during the Proterozoic eon. The Canadian Shield is the largest exposure of this craton. From the Late Paleozoic to Early Mesozoic eras, North America was joined with the other modern-day continents as part of the supercontinent Pangaea, with Eurasia to its east. One of the results of the formation of Pangaea was the Appalachian Mountains, which formed some 480 million years ago, making it among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. When Pangaea began to rift around 200 million years ago, North America became part of Laurasia, before it separated from Eurasia as its own continent during the mid-Cretaceous period. The Rockies and other western mountain ranges began forming around this time from a period of mountain building called the Laramide orogeny, between 80 and 55 million years ago. The formation of the Isthmus of Panama connected the continent to South America about three million years ago, and the Great Lakes (as well as many other northern freshwater lakes and rivers) were carved by receding glaciers about 10,000 years ago.
North America is the source of much of what humanity knows about geologic time periods. The geographic area that would later become the United States has been the source of more varieties of dinosaurs than any other modern country. According to paleontologist Peter Dodson, this is primarily due to stratigraphy, climate and geography, human resources, and history. Much of the Mesozoic Era is represented by exposed outcrops in the many arid regions of the continent. The most significant Late Jurassic dinosaur-bearing fossil deposit in North America is the Morrison Formation of the western United States.
The ruins of Chichén Itzá, Mexico.
Anthropologists have a number of models explaining the origins of the early human population of North America. The indigenous peoples of North America have many creation myths by which they assert that they have been present on the land since its creation. The consensus is that indigenous North Americans first arrived from Asia during the last Ice Age, most likely through the Bering Land Bridge and possibly by primitive boats also.
Before contact with Europeans, the natives of North America were divided into many different polities, from small bands of a few families to large empires. They lived in several "culture areas", which roughly correspond to geographic and biological zones and give a good indication of the main lifeway or occupation of the people who lived there (e.g. the bison hunters of the Great Plains, or the farmers of Mesoamerica). Native groups can also be classified by their language family (e.g. Athapascan or Uto-Aztecan). Peoples with similar languages did not always share the same material culture, nor were they always allies. Anthropologists think that the Inuit people of the high Arctic came to North America much later than other native groups, as evidenced by the disappearance of Dorset culture artifacts from the archaeological record, and their replacement by the Thule people. It is possible that North America had several peoples among its early settlers. The best known evidence that supports this theory is Kennewick Man.
During the thousands of years of native habitation on the continent, cultures changed and shifted. One of the oldest cultures yet found is the Clovis culture of modern New Mexico. Later cultures include the Mississippian culture and related Mound building cultures, found in the Mississippi river valley and the Pueblo culture of what is now the Four Corners. The more southern cultural groups of North America were responsible for the domestication of many common crops now used around the world, such as tomatoes and squash. Perhaps most importantly they domesticated one of the world's major staples, maize (corn).
As a result of the development of agriculture in the south, many important cultural advances were made there. For example, the Maya civilization developed a writing system, built huge pyramids and temples, had a complex calendar, and developed the concept of zero around 400 CE, a few hundred years after the Mesopotamians. The Mayan culture was still present in southern Mexico and Guatemala when the Spanish explorers arrived, but political dominance in the area had shifted to the Aztec Empire whose capital city Tenochtitlan was located further north in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs were conquered in 1521 by Hernán Cortés.
Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe (1771) depicting the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
During the Age of Discovery, Europeans began exploring and staking claims in various parts of North America. Upon their arrival in the "New World," the Native American population declined substantially, primarily due to the introduction of European diseases to which the Native Americans lacked immunity, as well as violent conflicts. Native peoples found their culture changed drastically. As such, their affiliation with political and cultural groups changed as well, several linguistic groups went extinct, and others changed quite quickly. The names and cultures that Europeans recorded for the natives were not necessarily the same as the ones they had used a few generations before, or the ones in use today.
Britain, Spain, and France fought over and established extensive territories in North America. In the late 18th century and beginning of the 19th, several independence movements started across the continent, which would create its modern countries. The 13 British colonies on the North Atlantic coast declared independence in 1776, becoming the United States of America. Canada was formed from the unification of northern territories controlled by Britain and France. New Spain, a territory that stretched from modern-day southern U.S. to Central America, declared independence in 1810 becoming the First Mexican Empire. In 1823 the former Captaincy General of Guatemala, then part of the Mexican Empire, became the first independent state in Central America, officially changing its name to the United Provinces of Central America.
Geography and extent
Further information: Geography of North America
Satellite imagery of North America.
North America occupies the northern portion of the landmass generally referred to as the New World, the Western Hemisphere, the Americas, or simply America (which, less commonly, is considered by some as a single continent with North America a subcontinent). North America's only land connection to South America is at the Isthmus of Panama. The continent is delimited on the southeast by most geographers at the Darién watershed along the Colombia-Panama border, placing all of Panama within North America. Alternatively, less common views would end North America at the man-made Panama Canal, and some geologists physiographically locate its southern limit at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico, with Central America extending southeastward to South America from this point. The Caribbean islands, or West Indies, are considered part of North America.
Before the Central American isthmus was raised, the region had been underwater. The islands of the West Indies delineate a submerged former land bridge which had connected North America and South America via what are now Florida and Venezuela. The continental coastline is long and irregular. The Gulf of Mexico is the largest body of water indenting the continent, followed by Hudson Bay. Others include the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Gulf of California.
There are numerous islands off the continent’s coasts, principally, the Arctic Archipelago, the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the Aleutian Islands (some of which are in the Eastern Hemisphere proper), the Alexander Archipelago, the many thousand islands of the British Columbia Coast, and Newfoundland. Greenland, a self-governing Danish island, and the world's largest, is on the same tectonic plate (the North American Plate) and is part of North America geographically. In a geologic sense, Bermuda is not part of the Americas, but an oceanic island which was formed on the fissure of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge over 100 million years ago. The nearest landmass to it is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. However, Bermuda is often thought of as part of North America, especially given its historical, political and cultural ties to Virginia and other parts of the continent.
Moraine Lake in Banff National Park
The vast majority of North America is on the North American Plate. Parts of western Mexico, including Baja California, and of California, including the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles and part of San Francisco, lie on the eastern edge of the Pacific Plate, with the two plates meeting along the San Andreas fault. The southernmost portion of the continent and much of the West Indies lie on the Caribbean Plate, whereas the Juan de Fuca and Cocos plates border the North American Plate on its western frontier.
The continent can be divided into four great regions (each of which contains many subregions): the Great Plains stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Arctic; the geologically young, mountainous west, including the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, California and Alaska; the raised but relatively flat plateau of the Canadian Shield in the northeast; and the varied eastern region, which includes the Appalachian Mountains, the coastal plain along the Atlantic seaboard, and the Florida peninsula. Mexico, with its long plateaus and cordilleras, falls largely in the western region, although the eastern coastal plain does extend south along the Gulf.
The western mountains are split in the middle into the main range of the Rockies and the coast ranges in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, with the Great Basin—a lower area containing smaller ranges and low-lying deserts—in between. The highest peak is Denali in Alaska.
The United States Geographical Survey states that the geographic center of North America is "6 miles west of Balta, Pierce County, North Dakota" at approximately 48°10′N 100°10′W, approximately 15 miles (24 km) from Rugby, North Dakota. The USGS further states that “No marked or monumented point has been established by any government agency as the geographic center of either the 50 States, the conterminous United States, or the North American continent.” Nonetheless, there is a 15-foot (4.5 m) field stone obelisk in Rugby claiming to mark the center. The North American continental pole of inaccessibility is located 1,650 km (1,030 mi) from the nearest coastline, between Allen and Kyle, South Dakota at 43.36°N 101.97°W.
Non-Native American Nation's control and claims over North America circa 1750–2008
Languages spoken in the Americas
Native languages of North America (Map of U.S., Canada and Greenland)
The prevalent languages in North America are English, Spanish, and French. The term Anglo-America is used to refer to the anglophone countries of the Americas: namely Canada (where English and French are co-official) and the United States, but also sometimes Belize and parts of the Caribbean. Latin America refers to the other areas of the Americas (generally south of the United States) where the Romance languages, derived from Latin, of Spanish and Portuguese (but French speaking countries are not usually included) predominate: the other republics of Central America (but not always Belize), part of the Caribbean (not the Dutch, English or French speaking areas), Mexico, and most of South America (except Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana (FR), and The Falkland Islands (UK)).
The French language has historically played a significant role in North America and now retains a distinctive presence in some regions. Canada is officially bilingual. French is the official language of the Province of Quebec, where 95% of the people speak it as either their first or second language, and it is co-official with English in the Province of New Brunswick. Other French-speaking locales include the Province of Ontario (the official language is English, but there is an estimated 600,000 Franco-Ontarians), the Province of Manitoba (co-official as de-jure with English), the French West Indies and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, as well as the US state of Louisiana, where French is also an official language. Haiti is included with this group based on historical association but Haitians speak both Creole and French. Similarly, French and French Antillean Creole is spoken in Saint Lucia and the Commonwealth of Dominica alongside English.
Economically, Canada and the United States are the wealthiest and most developed nations in the continent, followed by Mexico, a newly industrialized country. The countries of Central America and the Caribbean are at various levels of economic and human development. For example, small Caribbean island-nations such as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda have a higher GDP (PPP) per capita than Mexico due to their smaller populations. Panama and Costa Rica have a significantly higher Human Development Index and GDP than the rest of the Central American nations.
Demographically, North America is a racially and ethnically diverse continent. Its three main racial groups are Caucasians, Mestizos and Blacks. There is a significant minority of Indigenous Americans and Asians among other less numerous groups.
Socially and culturally, North America presents a well-defined entity. Canada and the United States have a similar culture and similar traditions as a result of both countries being former British colonies. A common cultural and economic market has developed between the two nations because of the strong economic and historical ties. Spanish-speaking North America shares a common past as former Spanish colonies. In Mexico and the Central American countries where civilizations like the Maya developed, indigenous people preserve traditions across modern boundaries. Central American and Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations have historically had more in common due to geographical proximity and the fact that they won independence from Spain.
Northern Mexico, particularly in the cities of Monterrey, Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Mexicali, is strongly influenced by the culture and way of life of the United States. Of the a fore mentioned cities, Monterrey has been regarded as the most Americanized city in North America. Immigration to the United States and Canada remains a significant attribute of many nations close to the southern border of the U.S. The Anglophone Caribbean states have witnessed the decline of the British Empire and its influence on the region, and its replacement by the economic influence of Northern America. In the Anglophone Caribbean this influence is partly due to the relatively small populations (less than 200,000) of the majority of English-speaking Caribbean countries, and the fact that many of these countries now have expatriate diasporas living abroad that are larger than those remaining at home.
North American cities
New York City
See also: List of North American countries by population, List of North American cities by population, and List of North American metropolitan areas by population
The most populous country in North America, over doubling the second largest country in population, is the United States with 311.6 million persons. The second largest country, and only other country to maintain a populace above 100 million persons is Mexico with a population of 112,322,757. Canada is the third largest country with a population of 32,623,490. The majority of Caribbean island-nations have national populations under one million, though Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico - a territory of the United States, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago have populations higher than one million.
While the United States, Canada, and Mexico maintain the largest populations, large city populations are not restricted to those nations. There are also large cities in the Caribbean. The largest cities in North America, by far, are Mexico City and New York. These cities are the only cities on the continent to exceed eight million, and two of three in the Americas. Next in size are Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Havana, Santo Domingo, and Montreal. Cities in the sunbelt regions of the United States, such as those in Southern California and Houston, Phoenix, Miami, Atlanta, and Las Vegas, are experiencing rapid growth. These causes included warm temperatures, retirement of Baby Boomers, large industry, and the influx of immigrants. Cities near the United States border, particularly in Mexico, are also experiencing large amounts of growth. Most notable is Tijuana, a city bordering San Diego that receives immigrants from all over Latin America and parts of Europe and Asia. Yet as cities grow in these warmer regions of North America, they are increasingly forced to deal with the major issue of water shortages.
Eight of the top ten metropolitan areas are located in the United States. These metropolitan areas all have a population of above 5.5 million and include the New York City metropolitan area, Los Angeles metropolitan area, Chicago metropolitan area, and the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. Whilst the majority of the largest metropolitan areas are within the United States, Mexico is host to the largest metropolitan area by population in North America: Greater Mexico City. Canada also breaks into the top ten largest metropolitan areas with the Toronto metropolitan area having five and half million citizens. The proximity of cities to each other on the Canada - United States border and Mexico - United States border has led to the rise of international metropolitan areas. These urban agglomerations are observed at their largest and most productive in Detroit–Windsor and San Diego–Tijuana and experience large commercial, economic, and cultural activity. The metropolitan areas are responsible for millions of dollars of trade dependent on international freight. In Detroit-Windsor the Border Transportation Partnership study in 2004 concluded USD $13 billion was dependent on the Detroit–Windsor international border crossing while in San Diego-Tijuana freight at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry was valued at USD $20 billion.
The North America continent has also been witness to the growth of megapolitan areas. In the United States exists eleven megaregions that transcend international borders and comprise Canadian and Mexican metropolitan regions. These are the Arizona Sun Corridor, Cascadia, Florida, Front Range, Great Lakes Megaregion, Gulf Coast Megaregion, Northeast, Northern California, Piedmont Atlantic, Southern California, and the Texas Triangle. Canada and Mexico are also the home of megaregions. These include the Quebec City – Windsor Corridor, Golden Horseshoe - both of which are considered part of the Great Lakes Megaregion - and megalopolis of Central Mexico. Traditionally the largest megaregion has been considered the Boston-Washington, D.C. Corridor, or the Northeast, as the region is one massive contiguous area. Yet megaregion criterion have allowed the Great Lakes Megalopolis to maintain status as the most populated region, being home to 53,768,125 people in 2000.
The top ten largest North American metropolitan areas by population as of 2010, based on national census numbers from the United States of America, and census estimates from Canada and Mexico.
Geologic map of North America
Sedimentary, volcanic, plutonic, metamorphic rock types of North America.
Main article: Geology of North America
Geologically, Canada is one of the oldest regions in the world, with more than half of the region consisting of precambrian rocks that have been above sea level since the beginning of the Palaeozoic era. Canada's mineral resources are diverse and extensive. Across the Canadian Shield and in the north there are large iron, nickel, zinc, copper, gold, lead, molybdenum, and uranium reserves. Large diamond concentrations have been recently developed in the Arctic, making Canada one of the world's largest producers. Throughout the Shield there are many mining towns extracting these minerals. The largest, and best known, is Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury is an exception to the normal process of forming minerals in the Shield since there is significant evidence that the Sudbury Basin is an ancient meteorite impact crater. The nearby, but less known Temagami Magnetic Anomaly has striking similarities to the Sudbury Basin. Its magnetic anomalies are very similar to the Sudbury Basin, and so it could be a second metal-rich impact crater. The Shield is also covered by vast boreal forests that support an important logging industry.
U.S. geological provinces
The lower 48 U.S. states can be divided into roughly five physiographic provinces:
The American cordillera.
The Canadian Shield.
The stable platform.
The coastal plain.
The Appalachian orogenic belt.
The geology of Alaska is typical of that of the cordillera, while the major islands of Hawaii consist of Neogene volcanics erupted over a hot spot.
North America bedrock and terrain
North American cratons and basement rocks
Central American geology
Central America rests in the Caribbean Plate.
Central America is geologically active with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occurring from time to time. In 1976 Guatemala was hit by a major earthquake, killing 23,000 people; Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, was devastated by earthquakes in 1931 and 1972, the last one killed about 5,000 people; three earthquakes devastated El Salvador, one in 1986 and two in 2001; one earthquake devastated northern and central Costa Rica in 2009 killing at least 34 people; in Honduras a powerful earthquake killed 7 people in 2009.
Volcanic eruptions are common in the region. In 1968 the Arenal Volcano, in Costa Rica, erupted and killed 87 people. Fertile soils from weathered volcanic lavas have made it possible to sustain dense populations in the agriculturally productive highland areas.
Central America has many mountain ranges; the longest are the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the Cordillera Isabelia and the Cordillera de Talamanca. Between the mountain ranges lie fertile valleys that are suitable for the people; in fact most of the population of Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala live in valleys. Valleys are also suitable for the production of coffee, beans and other crops.