The earth is still largely unknown to mankind. Believe it or not, we’ve only explored a tiny percentage of the oceans and only know of about ten percent of the total species that inhabit the planet. But we know for a fact that there are seven continents, right? Well, maybe not! There is a substantial mass of land large enough to consider a small continent that is recently getting a lot of discussion. The only thing is that it’s almost completely underwater. A bit of the continent is above sea level, including New Zealand and New Caledonia. As it happens, that means that these islands aren’t even islands at all, but a part of this new continent!
While Zealandia has been studied for many years, it hasn’t been until now that anyone considered that it is actually its own continent. That’s pretty cool for all of us that studied the names of the continents like crazy for a test on Friday back in grade school. But it turns out that the discovery that Zealandia is actually a continent of its own opens up a whole new area of exploration about our planet. There’s a lot of cool information uncovered about this hidden continent with some absolutely outrageous facts that you can be sure to add to your dinner table conversation!
15. Volcanically Active
Because of its location on two distinct tectonic plates (The Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate), Zealandia has a certain amount of volcanic activity both above and below sea level. All the tectonic activity is what led Zealandia to sink in the first place millions of years ago. Today, the country of New Zealand (the largest above water portion of the new continent) has its own volcanic zones. Underwater zones exist as well, making the area prime for activity. Consider that volcanic eruptions are kind of like the planet’s opportunity to pass gas. The more tectonic activity, the more likely for volcanic activity, though there has not been a major devastation upon the continent in modern history however. It’s not quite as simple as popping a Tums or taking some Imodium though.
14. Lots of Natural Gas Fields
The identification of this land mass as a continent under the water has some economic impact as well. In fact, it kind of has a lot of impact. Territorial waters and natural resource ownership could expand for New Zealand as a result of such a discovery. Instead of classifying New Zealand as an island only, this kind of changes the game a bit. The existence of some substantial natural gas fields has caused a few lifted eyebrows across the globe. Nothing advances science like good old fashioned capitalism and when dollar signs start appearing, things start to move faster. But the question of who has what claim to what natural resources is still very much unanswered. While the designation of Zealandia as a separate continent is mostly a scientific fascination, no one is disputing how great of an economic impact such a distinction could create.
13. Some Areas Already Have Names
When looking at the map, that adds the area of Zealandia with clear boundaries, it appears that as a result of previous studies, geologists have already begun labeling and classifying different geographic regions of the continent. Areas to the North include Lord Howe Rise and Norfolk Ridge. Central and Southern Zealandia include Chatham Rise and the Campbell Plateau. It’s nice to see that there are already some names to go with different regions of the underwater land mass. Some of these are named because of islands (or what we used to think were islands) above sea level. Certainly, there won’t be the same level of naming as in areas that are a little more accessible on the planet, but with more discovery will come more interesting pictures of what may be awaiting us under the water.
12. Broke Away From Australia
For a period of time, Zealandia was officially part of the Australian continent. This lasted for tens of millions of years, but then some 80 million years ago (give or take) it officially split apart and became its own continental land mass, most of which was for a time, above sea level. Before this, it had been a part of Antarctica, but we all know that the continents have had a long and complicated history since the beginning of the planet. Even today, the continental area of Zealandia is very close to Australia, but it is important to note that it is its own completely separate continent. I wonder if Australia is going to get upset now that it will have to share some continental limelight in the area with Zealandia?
11. First Given Name In 1995
Zealandia didn’t just get discovered last week. While scientists didn’t quite know or understand what they were dealing with (more on this later), one individual determined that giving it a name would be an important start. Earth scientist from the University of California – Santa Barbara, Bruce Luyendyk coined the phrase all the way back in 1995. He didn’t quite intend to name an entire continent, but rather reference the larger region of islands and land around New Zealand. Interestingly, the name stuck and has become the common name associated with what scientists are universally agreeing is a whole new continent! He originally stated that he called the area Zealandia simply out of convenience, instead of calling all the different land areas by different names. A smart idea that seems to have stuck Dr. Luyendyk!
10. Huge Area of Land!
So it turns out that when you look at the land underwater, that is specifically identified as continental (not part of the earth’s crust) there is a lot of land! While as a continent, it’s still the smallest on earth, the amount of space it takes up is not too shabby. At 4.9 million kilometers, Zealandia is about half the size of the United States! Discovering so much land that covers such a large mass leaves a great curiosity about the unknown. The science about what living things once roamed this continent over a hundred million years ago is very fascinating. Certainly, scientists are trying to learn all they can about Zealandia, especially now that they know that once upon a time, it was above sea level. There’s certainly a lot of study with 4.9 million kilometers of land.
9. Political Impact
The question of what this means politically is very uncertain. Sure, a lot of things are possible, but oceanic boundaries were established many years ago and it wouldn’t seem that this will have any major impact upon those boundaries. Australia is both a continent and a country and New Zealand is also its own country. There’s not a whole lot of competition out in that part of the world. The idea about who may have mineral rights to much of what’s underneath the water is probably a moot point as well, although New Zealand may have a little more clout now. It’s doubtful that the discovery of this land mass as a continent will change a whole lot of things, except maps and globes. But if research picks up and commercial ventures get started, there could be a lot more control over those waters.
8. New Zealand At The Top
One of the coolest points about this whole thing is that if you were to drain the ocean, it would turn up that New Zealand isn’t an island after all. While it looks like two major islands, it is actually the tallest point of the Zealandia continent! If the whole continent were to suddenly rise out of the ocean, what is currently New Zealand would be the highest elevations! In fact, all of the “islands” in the area, including New Caledonia, Norfolk Island and the Lord Howe Island Group are all the highest elevations of this exciting new continent. These islands house just under five million people and account for about six percent of the land mass of Zealandia. It makes you wonder how they feel about this exciting discovery.
7. Sunk 100 Million Years Ago
Imagine some prehistoric species roaming the countryside of Zealandia. It is interesting to consider some of the earliest species that lived and thrived on the continent. It was originally part of Antarctica (along with Australia) but broke apart, later breaking off from Australia as well. But scientists believe that it sunk beneath the water approximately 100 million years ago! This length of time is nearly impossible to imagine. Because of its location on two different tectonic plates, there was a lot of seismic activity that caused the land to sink beneath sea level. While Zealandia lost out on most of its land above sea level, it will not be regarded as the least populous continent on the planet. Antarctica is still mostly uninhabitable and is the least populated continent on earth.
6. Maybe Another New Continent?
Over 200 million years ago, there was a massive super-continent on earth that is known as Gondwana. This continent included Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia along with some other parts of land here and there. But somewhere around 200 million years ago, it started the slow process of breaking apart. Just as scientists have discovered Zealandia as an official continent, they also believe that there could be another lost continent they are calling “Mauritia.” This submerged potential continent is located in the Indian Ocean between the Southern tip of India and Madagascar. While the research on this area is not as far along as Zealandia, it is still a fascinating new development. It just goes to prove how much we still do not know about our own home planet!
5. No Official Decision Makers
While it may seem strange, there is actually no governing body that determines official designations regarding what is and is not a continent on our planet. The geographical bodies on earth are not governed by any one country or group of countries. The United Nations (while interested in global science) doesn’t actually have jurisdictional authority over land classification. So to make Zealandia an official continent is not quite as simple as filing paperwork in a government office. In fact, the closest thing we could come to an official designation is a revision of maps and globes from the companies that make them! It first has to become a popular topic in the world of geography and universally agreed upon by scientists. We’ll see what comes next, but it could take some time.
4. It’s Actually Rising Again!
Believe it or not, Zealandia is actually beginning the process of rising again. While it was around 30 million years ago that Zealandia submerged at its peak, it has since begun the uplift process. This is evident as New Zealand has seen itself rising out of the water. It’s the plate tectonics and their activity that caused the sinking, and are now uplifting the continent. While the vast majority of Zealandia is still (and likely will continue to be) under water, it’s an interesting notion that perhaps new islands and an extension of existing islands is entirely possible. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a rising continent. Don’t waste your time watching for the rise, or you’ll be waiting a while. It did take tens of millions of years to sink in the first place.
3. Earthquake Created New Land Areas
While it takes a very long time to sink or even uplift an entire continent, surprisingly, earthquake activity can accomplish some pretty amazing results! In November, 2016, a rather large seismic event registering at a magnitude of 7.6 occurred on New Zealand. In just a few seconds, an underwater reef was thrown about 20 feet above sea level! This has created a new sea floor and new aquatic life thriving in that area. While an entire continent will not rise out of the ocean as a result of an earthquake, it is very interesting to see how much of an impact an earthquake can have on landmasses. Remember that Zealandia is both volcanically and seismically active, meaning that if mother nature wants to start making noise, it could get loud!
2. Making The Case For Twenty Years
Scientists began looking into what was beneath the waters around New Zealand a few decades ago. The area hasn’t always been seen definitively as a continent. There are in fact, four different requirements to classify a land mass as a continent. Among these, it must include the presence of different types of rock as well as a higher elevation compared to the crust of the earth. Most recently, due to satellite technology and gravity mapping of the floor of the sea has confirmed all four of the requirements to declare a land mass a continent. Research of this area of the world has been going on for years and it has been an interesting scientific fascination. But finally after decades of study, Zealandia gets to be its very own continent! Congratulations Zealandia, you’ve made it to the show!
1. Important For Studying Continental Crust
The scientific impact about what can still be learned about Zealandia is the most interesting part about the discovery. Given that the entire continent has sunk beneath the water with so much seismic activity for millions of years and it has not broken apart opens the door to lots of new research. Studying this continental crust is important as scientists try to learn more about the way our continents were originally formed and what they might do in the future. Our continents have not stopped moving and they likely never will. As we study this new submerged land, we can learn more about the past in terms of crust, fossils, minerals and so much more. It also helps in the discovery of other underwater continental land as mentioned before in the Indian Ocean.