• A continental divide is a naturally occurring boundary or ridge separating a continent’s river systems. Each river system feeds into a distinct ocean basin, bay, or sea.

    Continental divides are broad, continent-wide example of drainage divides, sometimes just called divides. Divides are boundaries that separate drainage basins or watersheds of all sizes. Drainage divides, regardless of scale, occur in raised terrain such as mountain ranges or hills.

    Generally, precipitation that falls on one side of the divide will flow to one basin and precipitation that falls on the other side will flow to another basin. 

    In some cases, water runs toward an endorheic basin, such as a saline lake or salt flat. Endorheic basins, which do not connect to an ocean or other large body of water, usually occur in desert areas. Much of the Sahara Desert in Africa, for example, is an endorheic basin. This means that rivers and streams that flow into Lake Chad, on the edge of the Sahara, have no outlet to either the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic or Indian Oceans.

    Continental divides are found on every continent. Continents that are bordered by more than two bodies of water may have more than one continental divide. For example, North America has between three and five divides. Scientists have not yet agreed on a specific number because the exact border between ocean basins is not universally accepted.

    Some continental divides span multiple continents. For example, the Continental Divide of the Americas, or the Great Divide, runs through much of North and South America. It separates the water that runs toward the Pacific Ocean from the water that runs toward the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. This divide runs from Cape Prince of Wales in western Alaska, through the Rocky Mountains of western Canada and the continental United States, then through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in Mexico, through Central America and along the Andes Mountains of South America. 

    continental divide
    The Rocky Mountains are part of a continental divide.

    Great Dividing Range
    The Great Dividing Range is a series of mountain ranges and escarpments that runs the entire length of eastern Australia. Despite its name, the Great Dividing Range is only sometimes considered a continental divide. It separates water flowing to the Pacific Ocean from water flowing to the Southern and Indian Oceans. Australia’s interior, however, is dominated by the endorheic Lake Eyre Basin.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    bay Noun

    body of water partially surrounded by land, usually with a wide mouth to a larger body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: bay
    boundary Noun

    line separating geographical areas.

    Encyclopedic Entry: boundary
    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    continental divide Noun

    point or area that separates which directions a continent's river systems flow.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continental divide
    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    divide Noun

    a ridge between two drainage systems.

    Encyclopedic Entry: divide
    drainage basin Noun

    an entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries. Also called a watershed.

    endorheic basin Noun

    watershed that empties into an internal body of water, not the ocean.

    Great Divide Noun

    continental divide in North America separating rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean and rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Also called the Continental Divide of the Americas.

    hill Noun

    land that rises above its surroundings and has a rounded summit, usually less than 300 meters (1,000 feet).

    Encyclopedic Entry: hill
    mountain range Noun

    series or chain of mountains that are close together.

    ocean Noun

    large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ocean
    ocean basin Noun

    depression in the Earth's surface located entirely beneath the ocean.

    precipitation Noun

    all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation
    ridge Noun

    long, narrow elevation of earth.

    river system Noun

    tributaries, mouth, source, delta, and flood plain of a river.

    saline Adjective

    salty.

    salt flat Noun

    large, flat expanse of earth covered by a thick layer of salt left by an evaporated saline lake or pond. Also called a playa, sink, or salt pan.

    terrain Noun

    topographic features of an area.

    watershed Noun

    entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

    Encyclopedic Entry: watershed