The political and economic implications of a new continent would be manifold: A six-year study by the GNS Science Research Institute in New Zealand has revealed that tens of billions of dollars worth of fossil fuels could be located off-shore in the region.
A team of 11 geologists from New Zealand and Australia have discovered the world’s eighth continent 94% submerged in the southwest Pacific Ocean. At 4.9 million square kilometers of landmass, the world’s smallest continent — nicknamed Zealandia — is the youngest, thinnest, and the most submerged continent in the world. Its crust thickness is between 10 kilometers and 30 kilometers, increasing to 40 kilometers under parts of New Zealand’s South Island.
According to the research published in the Geological Society of America’s journal GSA Today, Zealandia is about two thirds of neighboring Australia, which makes it the seventh largest geological continent. Apparently, Zealandia, which is approximately the area of greater India, was a former part of the Gondwana supercontinent (like India, Australia, Antarctica, Africa, and South America) that sank 100 million years ago.
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Previously, researchers had thought of Zealandia as a motley collage of continental crust fragments. Others, including National Geographic, defined Zealandia as a micro continent: a well-defined landmass that checks the geologic box of continental crust but is geologically disconnected from the nearest continent — in this case, Australia. But lead author Nick Mortimer, who heads a team of eight geologists at GNS Science, begs to differ:
“Being >1 Mkm2 in area, and bounded by well-defined geologic and geographic limits, Zealandia is, by our definition, large enough to be termed a continent. At 4.9 Mkm2, Zealandia is substantially bigger than any features termed micro continents and continental fragments, ~12× the area of Mauritia and ~6× the area of Madagascar. It is also substantially larger than the area of the largest intraoceanic large igneous province, the Ontong Java Plateau (1.9 Mkm2).”
The geologists, who concluded that New Zealand and New Caledonia aren’t just island chains but are part of a 4.9-million-square kilometer region separate from Australia, had been researching various lines of geological and geophysical evidence to make the case for Zealandia — that it is not a collection of partly submerged continental fragments but a coherent 4.9 Mkm2 continent — for more than two decades.