Is Zealandia A Continent? Scientists See It As One, But Not Everyone Agrees

There's been a lot of noise made about Zealandia as a new continent. And while more than 90 percent of this land mass is underwater, scientists believe that it fulfills the criteria to be considered the world's eighth continent. But there are some who disagree, asserting that Zealandia doesn't fit the bill as a conventional continent.

According to the Huffington Post, Zealandia also covers New Caledonia and other nearby islands and territories located in the southwest part of the Pacific Ocean. Ninety-four percent of the continent, which is estimated to be about two-thirds the size of nearby Australia, is submerged underwater.

Previously, both Australia and New Zealand were thought to be part of the continent of Australia, but research published earlier this week by the Geological Society of America (GSA) suggests that New Zealand rests on a separate piece of continental crust measuring about 1.8 million square miles. Due to this vast continental support and it being separate from Australia, the multinational team of researchers believes that New Zealand is part of Zealandia, and not part of Australia or part of a microcontinent with nearby islands.

"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... (and) provides a fresh context in which to investigate processes of continental rifting, thinning, and breakup."
A report from The Guardian detailed how geologists have long been pushing for Zealandia's inclusion as a continent, having done so for over 20 years. American geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk had first come up with the name in 1995, but in the time since then, his study wasn't widely recognized by international researchers.

As for the new study, co-author and New Zealand geologist Nick Mortimer told The Guardian that his team had first created a map to prove the existence of Zealandia in 2002, gathering data and "joining the dots" over the years as more information became available.

"That's when the penny dropped, really... From that point, that map was literally our road map for some crosses, just trying to get rocks out of all the four corners of Zealandia that we could, so we could prove up the geology."
Zealandia is believed to be part of a supercontinent known as Gondwana, a prehistoric continent that covered most of the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia. This makes it similar to another recent candidate for Earth's "eighth continent" – Mauritia – which also may have split off from Gondwana millions of years ago.

Some have doubted whether Mortimer's study does officially qualify Zealandia as a continent, despite its features being consistent to how the researchers define one. For example, The Verge wrote earlier this week that continents are "identified mainly by convention," meaning continuous landmasses and not those that are mostly submerged underwater.

"Europe and Asia are considered separate continents, for instance. They are, however, a continuous landmass, Eurasia, and are treated as such by geologists. 'Zealandia' is 6 percent land and pretty much all sea."
BBC News wrote that while it's true Zealandia met the continent criteria set by Mortimer and his associates, there is no official board that could officially elevate it to continent status. This is a contrast to how the International Astronomical Union (IAU) removed Pluto from the list of planets over a decade ago, "demoting" it to the status of dwarf planet. And there may be more research needed before textbooks can be updated to state that there are eight, and not just seven, continents.

However, if Zealandia is a continent, those school books and other official literature will need to be updated for the 21st century, as it joins Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America as the world's eighth and smallest continent.

[Featured Image by David Hallett/Getty Images]