North America is the third largest continent in area and the fourth ranked in population. It is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean, on the east by the North Atlantic Ocean, on the south by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the North Pacific Ocean. It covers an area of 9,355,000 square miles (24,230,000 square kilometres). In 2001 its population was estimated at 454,225,000.
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North America occupies the northern portion of the landmass generally referred to as the New World, the Western Hemisphere, the Americas, or simply America. North America's only land connection is to South America at the narrow Isthmus of Panama. According to some authorities, North America begins not at the Isthmus of Panama but at the narrows of Tehuantepec, with the intervening region called Central America. Most, however, prefer to see Central America as a subcontinent or region of North America.
On the main continent itself there are three large and relatively populous countries: Canada (some large islands off the shore of North America and belonging to Canada include Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands on the west, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island on the east, and Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island, and Victoria Island in the north); Mexico (including the Revillagigedo archipelago and numerous smaller islands closer to the coast); and most of the United States (includes the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, but not the US state of Hawaii which lies in the Pacific Ocean).
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At the extreme southern end of the continent, in a relatively small area called Central America, are the countries of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, site of the Panama Canal.
The United States and Canada are sometimes grouped under the term Anglo-America while the rest of North America (not including Greenland, and some islands off the mainland coast) and South America is grouped under the term Latin America.
It should be noted that the term "North America", when employed in a context other than geography, may mean different things to different people. To many Americans and Canadians the term, in common usage, is often taken to mean "The United States of America and Canada, only", excluding Mexico and the countries of Central America, unless the context makes it clear that they are to be included (for instance, with specific reference to Mexico, when talking about NAFTA). This is due to the fact that culturally and economically, the USA and Canada are more alike to each other than they are to the rest of North America. Mexicans, however, are acutely aware that Mexico is a part of North America and object to this usage. The Central Americans, however, are generally content to be called Central Americans.
At the extreme southeastern end of the continent lies a chain of islands territories called the Antilles, the Caribbean or the West Indies, which include:
- Anguilla (British dependency)
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Aruba (part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands)
- British Virgin Islands (British dependency)
- Cayman Islands (British dependency)
- Dominica (Commonwealth of)
- Dominican Republic
- Guadeloupe (overseas department of France)
- Martinique (overseas department of France)
- Montserrat (British dependency)
- Navassa Island (U.S. territory)
- Netherlands Antilles (part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands)
- Puerto Rico (U.S. commonwealth)
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Trinidad and Tobago
- Turks and Caicos Islands (British dependency)
- U.S. Virgin Islands (territory of the USA)
Lying in the Atlantic Ocean but considered part of the continent are Bermuda, a British dependency; Greenland, a self-governing dependency of Denmark, the largest island in the world, located in the far north of the continent, to the east of Canada's Nunavut Territory; and Saint Pierre and Miquelon, found off the coast of Canada, the last of France's once vast North American possessions.
Arguably, four great regions can be discerned: the central lowlands, or Great Plains stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Candian 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 and Washington state, with the Great Basin -- a lower area containing smaller ranges -- in between. The highest peak is Denali in Alaska (which can be considered the tallest in the world if measured from the base to the summit, as distinct from sea level to summit).
-- CIA World Factbook