A continental divide is a drainage divide on a continent such that the drainage basin on one side of the divide feeds into one ocean or sea, and the basin on the other side either feeds into a different ocean or sea, or else is endorheic, not connected to the open sea. Every continent on earth except Antarctica (which has no known significant, definable free-flowing surface rivers) has at least one continental drainage divide; islands, even small ones like Killiniq Island on the Labrador Sea in Canada, may also host part of a continental divide or have their own island-spanning divide.
The endpoints of a continental divide may be coastlines of gulfs, seas or oceans, the boundary of an endorheic basin, or another continental divide. One case, the Great Basin Divide, is a closed loop around an endoreic basin. The endpoints where a continental divide meets the coast are not always definite since the exact border between adjacent bodies of water is usually not clearly defined. The International Hydrographic Organization's publication Limits of Oceans and Seas defines exact boundaries of oceans, but it is not universally recognized. Where a continental divide meets an endorheic basin, such as the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming, the continental divide splits and encircles the basin. Where two divides intersect, they form a triple divide, or a tripoint, a junction where three watersheds meet.
Whether a divide is considered a continental divide distinguished from other secondary drainage divides may depend on whether the associated gulfs, seas, or oceans are considered separate. For example, the Gulf of Mexico is considered separate from the Atlantic Ocean, so the Eastern Continental Divide separates their respective watersheds. But the Sea of Cortez is usually not considered separate from the Pacific Ocean, so the divide between the Colorado River watershed which drains to the Sea of Cortez, and Columbia River Watershed which drains to the Pacific Ocean, is not considered to be a continental divide.
Together, continental divides demarcate a set of drainage basins or watersheds, each of which drains to a specific ocean, sea or gulf, such as the North American Atlantic seaboard watershed which is demarcated by the Eastern Continental Divide and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Divide.
A 'continent' for the purpose of water divides may not correspond to a geopolitical or geophysical continent.
In Africa, the most significant continental divide is the Congo-Nile Divide between the watersheds of the Nile and the Congo, passing through the area of the African Great Lakes. Between the Congo and the Sahara, a vast area drains into the endorheic Lake Chad, puncturing the Atlantic–Mediterranean divide. The Mediterranean–Indian Ocean divide is punctured in East Africa by the endorheic lake systems of the East African Rift; in the south of the continent the divide between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans snakes between the watersheds of the Congo, Zambezi, Limpopo, and Orange Rivers, with the Okavango terminating in the Kalahari Desert.
Antarctica is not generally considered to have a continental divide. The interior of Antarctica receives very little precipitation, and that in the form of snow, and the continent is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. The Transantarctic Mountains divide the ice streams draining West Antarctica into the Ronne Ice Shelf, toward the Pacific Ocean and into the Ross Ice Shelf, from those draining East Antarctica toward the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
In Australia, the Great Dividing Range or Great Divide, largely separates those rivers flowing to the eastern seaboard and the Pacific Ocean from those flowing westward to the Murray–Darling Basin and to the Southern Ocean or to the Gulf of Carpentaria or to the Lake Eyre Basin. Two significant continental drainage divide tripoints are found along the Great Divide. Kennedy Junction marks the hydrological apex of waters running to the Pacific Ocean, via the Fitzroy Basin, the Southern Ocean, via the Murray Darling Basin and the Lake Eyre Basin. Just a little to the north Mitchell Junction marks the hydrological apex of waters running to the Indian Ocean (via the Gulf of Carpentaria and Indonesian Throughflow), the Pacific ocean via the Burdekin Basin and the Lake Eyre Basin. Many of the continents interior rivers drain into the endorheic Lake Eyre Basin, which during previous Ice Ages was a much larger sea.
Eurasia has various divides, depending on the definition of "ocean" (for example, the Mediterranean Sea and its various lobes, the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the North Sea). Examples include:
See also: Watersheds of North America
If the Gulf of California or Sea of Cortez is considered to be separate from the Pacific Ocean, there is a divide which separates the Pacific Ocean basin from the basin which drains into that gulf/sea, i.e the Colorado River basin:
In South America, the Continental Divide of the Americas lies along the Andes. In Central Chile and nearby areas of Argentina the Principal Cordillera makes up the continental divide. This divide forms much of the Argentina–Chile border. In the Miocene the continental divide in the Principal Cordillera was about 20 km to the west of the modern water divide. Subsequent river incision shifted the divide to the east. Compression and uplift in this part of the Andes has continued into the present.
From Lácar Lake and south there are numerous lakes on the eastern slopes that drain to the Pacific, crossing the line of highest peaks. These lakes in Patagonia are moraine-dammed streams, which used to drain to the Atlantic, rather than the Pacific, before the Pleistocene glaciations.