We may have an eighth continent on our hands, as a new report published in the official journal of the Geological Society of America detailed the evolution of a huge underwater landmass underneath and surrounding New Zealand.
Citing geophysical data, the report said the landmass includes New Zealand and New Caledonia, and is completely separate from Australia. The paper also argued that this landmass, which is about two-thirds the size of Australia, is indeed a continent and it pushed for its official recognition.
Most of the proposed continent is supposedly underwater (Photo: Nick Mortimer and colleagues, GSA Today)
“If you could pull the plug on the world’s oceans, then ‘Zealandia’ would probably long ago have been recognized as a continent,” study author Nick Mortimer, a geologist at GNS Science in New Zealand, told Nature News.
Technically speaking, there is no official body for recognizing continents, and why would there be? So, the study team is pushing for the greater scientific community to start recognizing this landmass as a continent.
“The results are pushing us to rethink how broadly we can or should apply the established definition of geological continental landmasses,” noted Patricia Durance, a mineral geologist at GNS Science who was not among the study’s authors.
Designating a New Continent
The GNS team has actually been making the case for Zealandia for over a decade: in public presentations, popular articles, and in books. The most recent paper is their most comprehensive academic argument to date. In their report, the team said Zealandia started to break away from the supercontinent of Gondwana around 100 million years ago.
While the continental break made Zealandia a separate landmass, the report said, it also thinned out the crust, causing the region to sink and sealing its fate as a mostly-underwater landmass. Today, around 6 percent of it pokes above water, known to us as New Zealand and New Caledonia.
“Claiming that Zealandia is a continent is a bit like stamp collecting,” said Peter Cawood, a geologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “So what?”
To the study team’s point, satellite maps do show Zealandia is a distinct geographical feature and sea-floor samples show it is made of light continental crust, not the volcanic rocks that comprise neighboring underwater plateaus.
Whether or not it makes Zealandia a widely-accepted notion, Mortimer said researching the landmass should help to reveal how New Zealand’s endemic plants and animals came about and show how continental crust can be reshaped.
Image credit: Thinkstock
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