Introducing Zealandia

Scientists think New Zealand might be part of a lost underwater continent

February 22, 2017

New Zealand is made up of many small islands, but geologists say they’re all connected by one underwater continent.

A group of geologists believes New Zealand and several surrounding islands, including New Caledonia, should be reclassified as part of an eighth continent called Zealandia. The archipelago, or group of islands, is currently grouped with Australia in the Australasia region. But scientists think there is enough geological evidence to give New Zealand its own continent designation.

The islands are connected by submerged continental crust. That crust, or outermost layer of earth, is separate and distinct from Australia and Antarctica. About 94% of that 1.9 million-square-mile land mass (approximately the area of India) is underwater. Still, the geologists argue that the area should count as its own continent. “Zealandia illustrates that the large and obvious in natural science can be overlooked,” researchers wrote in their study of the region, called "Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent.” It was published in the Geological Society of America's journal, GSA Today.

New Zealand is home to dramatic landscapes like these craggy peaks on South Island.

New Zealand is home to dramatic landscapes like these craggy peaks on South Island.

Building a Case

The geologists hail from New Zealand, New Caledonia, and the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, in Australia. They spent more than two decades gathering enough data to make the case for Zealandia.

They argue that if Earth’s surface was mapped the way other planets have been—that is, without massive oceans to obscure landforms—Zealandia would long ago have been recognized as a continent. “If we could pull the plug on the oceans, it would be clear to everyone we have mountain chains and a big high-standing continent above the ocean crust,” Nick Mortimer told the news agency Reuters. He is a geologist for the New Zealand government and the study’s lead author.

The conclusion of the study makes a similar point. "Based on various lines of geological and geophysical evidence, particularly those accumulated in the last two decades,” it states, “ … Zealandia is not a collection of partly submerged continental fragments but is a coherent … continent."

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