North America, third largest of the world’s continents, lying for the most part between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer. It extends for more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) to within 500 miles (800 km) of both the North Pole and the Equator and has an east-west extent of 5,000 miles. It covers an area of 9,355,000 square miles (24,230,000 square km).
North America occupies the northern portion of the landmass generally referred to as the New World, the Western Hemisphere, or simply the Americas.
North America 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. North America’s only land connection is to South America at the narrow Isthmus of Panama.
Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska, rising 20,310 feet (6,190 metres) above sea level, is the continent’s highest point, and Death Valley in California, at 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level, is its lowest. North America’s coastline of some 37,000 miles (60,000 km)—the second longest of the continents after Asia—is notable for the great number of indentations, particularly in the northern half.
The name America is derived from that of the Italian merchant and navigator Amerigo Vespucci, one of the earliest European explorers to visit. Although at first the term America was applied only to the southern half of the continent, the designation soon was applied to the entire landmass.
Those portions that widened out north of the Isthmus of Panama became known as North America, and those that broadened to the south became known as South America.
North America contains some of the oldest rocks on Earth. Its geologic structure is built around a stable platform of Precambrian rock called the Canadian (Laurentian) Shield. To the southeast of the shield rose the ancient Appalachian Mountains; and to the west rose the younger and considerably taller Cordilleras, which occupy nearly one-third of the continent’s land area. In between these two mountain belts are the generally flat regions of the Great Plains in the west and the Central Lowlands in the east.
The continent is richly endowed with natural resources, including great mineral wealth, vast forests, immense quantities of fresh water, and some of the world’s most fertile soils. These have allowed North America to become one of the most economically developed regions in the world, and its inhabitants enjoy a high standard of living.
North America has the highest average income per person of any continent and an average food intake per person that is significantly greater than that of other continents. Although it is home to less than 10 percent of the world’s population, it’s per capita consumption of energy is almost four times as great as the world average.