Continental Shelf Definition: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

The place where the ocean waters meet the land is the start of the continental shelf. This shelf can extend for miles into the water. Learn about the features and life within the continental shelf.

What is the Continental Shelf?

There are seven continents in the world, and each one is surrounded by ocean water, but where does a continent end and the ocean begin? If you were standing on the shore, you might say that the ocean starts where the water laps up onto the beach. But a scientist would tell you that area is still part of the continent known as the continental shelf.

The continental shelf is the water-covered edge of a continent.

The continental shelf is the edge of the continent that is covered by ocean water, so you have to go beyond the continental shelf to leave the continent.

Description of the Continental Shelf

The continental shelf is the fun part of the beach. It's the fairly flat and shallow area where you can play in the waves, surf, and collect seashells.

How far the continental shelf extends into the water depends on the location. The average width is 40 miles, but in some parts of California, the continental shelf is short and extends only about a half mile into the water. In other places, like the coast of Siberia, the shelf stretches about 800 miles out from the shoreline.

The light blue area on this photo, taken from space, shows the continental shelf around Australia.

The water covering the continental shelf is relatively shallow, but the depth will vary. In some places, the water might be so shallow that it barely covers your toes, but in rare places, the depth can plunge 500 feet, which is as deep as the length of one and a half football fields.

If you snorkel in the shallow waters off the shore's edge, you'll find all kinds of plants as well as fish, crabs, and many other sea creatures. Lots of things can live in the continental shelf area because the life-giving sun's rays can penetrate into the shallow waters.

The continental shelf is a useful area for people living on land. It's where we harvest much of the seafood we love to eat and get much of the energy needed to run our homes and vehicles.

These offshore wind turbines sit on the continental shelf.

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