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, representing about 7.5% of the human population. Most of the continent's land area is dominated by Canada, the United States, and Mexico, while smaller states exist in the Central American and Caribbean regions. North America is the third largest continent by area, following Asia and Africa, and the fourth by population after Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The first people to live in North America were Paleoindians who began to arrive during the last glacial period by crossing the Bering land bridge. They differentiated into a number of diverse cultures and communities across the continent. The largest and most advanced Pre-Columbian civilizations in North America were the Aztecs in what is now Mexico and the Maya in Central America. European colonists began to arrive starting in the 16th and 17th centuries, wiping out large numbers of the native populations and beginning an era of European dominance.
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.
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 LateJurassic dinosaur-bearing fossil deposit in North America is the Morrison Formation of the western United States.
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 US 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.
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 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.
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.
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 aforementioned 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 US. 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.
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.
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 meteoriteimpact 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.
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 killing 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 seven 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.
Canada, Mexico and the United States have significant and multifaceted economic systems. The United States has the largest economy in North America, and in the world. In 2011, the US has an estimated per capita gross domestic product (PPP) of $47,200, and is the most technologically developed economy in North America. The United States' services sector comprises 76.7% of the country's GDP (estimated in 2010), industry comprises 22.2% and agriculture comprises 1.2%. Canada's economic trends are similar to that of the United States, with significant growth in the sectors of services, mining and manufacturing. Canada's GDP (PPP) was estimated at $39,400 in 2010. Canada's services sector comprises 78% of the country's GDP (estimated in 2010), industry comprises 20% and agriculture comprises 2%. Mexico has a GDP (PPP) of $15,113 per capita and as of 2010 is the 11th largest economy in the world. Being a newly industrialized country, Mexico maintains both modern and outdated industrial and agricultural facilities and operations. Its main sources of income are oil, industrial exports, manufactured goods, electronics, heavy industry, automobiles, construction, food, banking and financial services.
The North America Free Trade Agreement forms one of the four largest trade blocs in the world. Its implementation in 1994 allowed for strong economic cooperation with hopes of eliminating barriers of trade and foreign investment between the three northern nations. While Canada and the United States already conducted the largest bilateral trade relationship – and to present day still do – in the world and Canada - United States trade relations already allowed trade without national taxes and tariffs, NAFTA allowed Mexico to experience a similar duty-free trade. The free trade agreement allowed for the elimination of tariffs that had previously been in place on United States-Mexico trade. Trade volume has steadily increased annually and in 2010, surface trade between the three NAFTA nations reached an all-time historical increase of 24.3% or US$791 billion. The NAFTA trade bloc GDP (PPP) is the world's largest with US$17.617 trillion. This is in part attributed to the fact that the economy of the United States is the world's largest national economy; the country had a nominal GDP of approximately $14.7 trillion in 2010. The countries of NAFTA are also some of each other's largest trade partners. The United States is the largest trade partner of Canada and Mexico; while Canada and Mexico are each other's third largest trade partners.
The Caribbean trade bloc – CARICOM – came into agreement in 1973 when it was signed by 15 Caribbean nations. As of 2000, CARICOM trade volume was US$96 billion. CARICOM also allowed for the creation of a common passport for associated nations. In the past decade the trade bloc focused largely on Free Trade Agreements and under the CARICOM Office of Trade Negotiations (OTN) free trade agreements have been signed into effect.
Integration of Central American economies occurred under the signing of the Central American Common Market agreement in 1961; this was the first attempt to engage the nations of this area into stronger financial cooperation. Recent implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has left the future of the CACM unclear. The Central American Free Trade Agreement was signed by five Central American countries, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. The focal point of CAFTA is to create a free trade area similar to that of NAFTA. In addition to the United States, Canada also has relations in Central American trade blocs. Currently under proposal, the Canada – Central American Free Trade Agreement (CA4) would operate much the same as CAFTA with the United States does.
The Pan-American Highway route in North America is the portion of a network of roads nearly 48,000 km (30,000 mi) in length which travels through the mainland nations of the Americas. No definitive length of the Pan American Highway exists because the US and Canadian governments have never officially defined any specific routes as being part of the Pan-American Highway, and Mexico officially has many branches connecting to the US border. However, the total length of the North American portion of the highway is roughly 26,000 km (16,000 mi).
The First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was built across North America in the 1860s, linking the railroad network of the eastern US with California on the Pacific coast. Finished on 10 May 1869 at the famous Golden spike event at Promontory Summit, Utah, it created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West, catalyzing the transition from the wagon trains of previous decades to a modern transportation system. Although an accomplishment, it achieved the status of first transcontinental railroad by connecting myriad eastern US railroads to the Pacific and was not the largest single railroad system in the world. The Canadian Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) had, by 1867, already accumulated more than 2,055 km (1,277 mi) of track by connecting Portland, Maine, and the three northern New England states with the Canadian Atlantic provinces west as far as Port Huron, Michigan, through Sarnia, Ontario.
Geographically the North American continent is composed of many regions and subregions. These included regions formed by cultural, economic, and geographic standards. Economic regions included those formed by trade blocs, among notable inclusions, the North American Trade Agreement bloc and Central American Trade Agreement. Linguistically and culturally, the continent could be divided into Anglo-America and Latin America. Anglo-America includes most of Northern America, Belize, and Caribbean islands with English-speaking populations (though sub-national entities, such as Louisiana and Quebec, are Francophone in composition).
The southern North American continent is often recognized as being composed of two regions. These recognized regions are Central America and the Caribbean. The north of the continent maintains recognized regions as well. In contrast to the common definition of "North America", that which encompasses the whole continent, the term "North America" is also used to refer to Canada, Mexico, the United States, and Greenland.
The term Northern America, originating in reference to the northern-most countries and territories of North America, is used in reference to Canada, the United States, Greenland, Bermuda, and St. Pierre and Miquelon. Although rarely used, the term Middle America—not to be confused with the Midwestern United States—groups the regions of Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.
The term North America maintains various definitions in accordance with location and context. In English, North America may be used to refer to the United States and Canada together. Alternatively, usage sometimes includes Greenland and Mexico (as in the North American Free Trade Agreement), as well as offshore islands.
In Ibero-America and other parts of Europe,[which?]North America usually designates a subcontinent of the Americas containing Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and often Greenland, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, and Bermuda.
Outside of North America, going into the twentieth century, the whole American continent (North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean) was referred to simply as "America" or "The Americas", one of the "Five Continents" (the other four being Africa, Europe, Asia, and Oceania).
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