Apparently there’s an eighth continent in the southwest Pacific.
A huge landmass, mostly submerged beneath the ocean, bears all the hallmarks of a continent, according to a new study published by the Geological Society of America. You may have heard of part of it: New Zealand.
They call the continent Zealandia. At nearly 1.9 million square miles, it seems massive, but it’s two-thirds the size of the world’s (current) smallest continent, Australia. Ninety-four percent of Zealandia is underwater, with most of the other 6 percent being New Zealand. But it’s what’s beneath the surface that counts, right?
The “Zealandia” moniker was coined by geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk in 1995 (see that famous page-turner “Hypothesis for Cretaceous Rifting of East Gondwana Caused By Subducted Slab Capture” for reference.)
Luyendyk argued at the time Zealandia checked three of the four boxes to be considered its own continent. But now geologists say it checks all four: distinctive geology; a finite, defined area; crust thicker than the standard ocean floor; and elevation above the surrounding area. Zealandia apparently has it all.
The experts who penned the study, aptly titled “Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent,” say if Zealandia had been mapped the same way scientists map Venus or Mars with current technology, we would have recognized it as its own continent much earlier.
“The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list,” the authors wrote. They said viewing the landmass as a continent is useful for scientists to explore “the cohesion and breakup of continental crust.”
Unlike with other realms of science (remember how scientists kicked Pluto off the planet list?), there’s no geological scientific body that determines new continents. So for Zealandia to become a continent, the wider scientific community would just have to all go with it.
It may not be a satisfying answer for now, but in geologists’ defense, it was pretty easy to assume we found all of the continents the first time around. As the authors wrote, though, “Zealandia illustrates that the large and the obvious in natural science can be overlooked.”
Beyond the science, it could be a PR win for a small country. The embassy of New Zealand in Washington didn’t immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment on how they may be sitting on their own continent now.
But others took the news well. “Honestly, it’s about time,” quipped one Kiwi official to FP, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I had to endure years of taunting from friends that New Zealand wasn’t part of a continent. Look at us now!”
Photo credit: NASA via Getty Images