Satellite Image of New Zealand

Zealandia: Reaction To The Newly Discovered Lost Continent Grows

Asia, Africa, Australia, and Zealandia? The recently unearthed continent may soon have schoolchildren around the world seeing the addition of an eighth continent in their textbooks if social media buzz this week is any indication.

The news of Zealandia may be new to laypeople, but scientists have been using the term since 1995 when, according to ABC News, a geologist by the name of Bruce Luyendyk coined the phrase to describe an area encompassing New Zealand, New Caledonia, and the landmass underwater.

A summary of the research findings, entitled “Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent” was presented by GSA Today. In the article, researchers made the argument that Zealandia could be categorized as a continent because of its elevation, ancient and diverse rock structure, physical terrain, and size.

Nick Mortimer, the lead author of the GSA Today study, noted in a recent interview that it may be hard to visualize the presence of Zealandia because it is hidden deep in the ocean.

“If we could pull the plug on the oceans, it would be clear to everybody that we have mountain chains and a big, high-standing continent.”

According to the study authors, Zealandia is comparable in size to India at approximately 1.9 million square miles. It is also believed that the land mass was once part of Gondwana, which was once a supercontinent that split apart 180 million years ago. Zealandia is roughly 5 percent the size of Gondwana, which gives some idea of the enormity of that long-ago supercontinent.

#BreakingNews Zealandia: Earth's Hidden Continent (Mortimer et al., 2017. Geology). Abstract: "A 4.9 Mkm2 region of the southwest #Pacific Ocean is made up of #continental crust. The region has elevated bathymetry relative to surrounding #oceanic crust, diverse and silica-rich rocks, and relatively thick and low-velocity crustal structure. Its isolation from #Australia and large area support its definition as a continent—Zealandia. #Zealandia was formerly part of #Gondwana. Today it is 94% submerged, mainly as a result of widespread Late #Cretaceous crustal thinning preceding supercontinent breakup and consequent isostatic balance. The identification of Zealandia as a geological continent, rather than a collection of continental #islands, fragments, and slices, more correctly represents the geology of this part of #Earth. Zealandia provides a fresh context in which to investigate processes of continental rifting, thinning, and breakup." #geography #geology #paleogeography #igers *instanature #igtoday #instatoday #map

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Gondwana was the southernmost part of an even larger continent known as Pangea that formed after a massive collision. What we now know as Antarctica, Australia, Africa, and South America were once part of Gondwana.

Researchers hypothesize that about 100 million years ago, Zealandia developed when it broke away from Gondwana because of ongoing continental drift, which is the theory that our modern continents formed through a slow interaction of plate tectonics.

As Scientific American noted, the continental crust of Zealandia is distinct and separate from Australia. As evidenced by its name, Zealandia is 94 percent submerged underwater in the Pacific Ocean with New Zealand and nearby island New Caledonia representing the tiny fraction of the continental crust that remained above water.

For the New Zealand scientists who have studied Zealandia, they believe the landmass illustrates that “The large and the obvious in natural science can be overlooked.” They also noted that what ultimately makes Zealandia unique is that is has existed for so long, submerged and intact.

News of Zealandia comes after scientists found evidence of another lost continent named Mauritia located in the depths of the Indian Ocean near the African island nation of Mauritius. The discovery of Mauritia happened when rocks that are billions of years old were discovered in Mauritius that could not have existed in the period that the island has been around.

The study of Zealandia is already providing greater insight into the distinct geology of New Zealand, which as The Christian Science Monitor found, has seen a complete reshaping of its landscape due to a recent earthquake. The sea wall, located along the South Island’s coastline, now has an elevated area covered in seaweed and misplaced sea snails and other animals pushed from their deep-water homes.

KAIKOURA, NEW ZEALAND site of recent earthquake
Kaikoura, New Zealand. [Image by Pool/Getty Images]

Zealandia represents an integral part of future research into not just how New Zealand formed, but the entire region. According to the study authors, “depictions of the Paleozoic-Mesozoic geology of Gondwana, eastern Australia, and West Antarctica are both incomplete and misleading if they omit Zealandia.”

For geologists that study the evolution of landmasses, Zealandia is a game-changer. It expands knowledge of how continents broke apart and formed over the course of hundreds of millions of years. It is also a reminder to us all that the planet we occupy is constantly shifting and transforming over time.

[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]