Is Zealandia the World’s Newest Continent?

Mount Cook New Zealand
The peak of New Zealand's highest mountain Mount Cook is pictured on February 25, 2015. Scientists claim that New Zealand is part of a continent almost totally submerged beneath the oceans. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty

Scientists are making a renewed claim for Zealandia—a land mass that is 94 percent submerged under water and includes New Zealand—to be recognized as a new continent.

In a paper published in the Geological Society of America’s journal, GSA Today, researchers said that the 5 million square kilometer Zealandia—which is about two-thirds the size of Australia—has the requisite features for constituting a continent.

Zealandia is a continuous piece of continental crust, which is thought to have broken away from the supercontinent Gondwana—which included Australia—between 60 million and 85 million years ago, The Guardian reported. American scientist Bruce Luyendyk first named the land mass Zealandia in 1995, and geologists have been arguing for its recognition ever since.

Zealandia map A map showing Zealandia, which researchers contend constitutes a distinct continent from Australia. GNS

New Zealand’s North and South Islands constitute the highest mountains on Zealandia. The land mass also includes New Caledonia and several other smaller islands, including Norfolk Island.

If recognized, Zealandia would be the smallest continent in the world. The others are Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America.

Currently the land mass that includes New Zealand is classified as part of the continent of Australia.

“The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list,” said the study. “That a continent can be so submerged yet unfragmented makes it [useful]...in exploring the cohesion and breakup of continental crust.”

The study’s lead author, Nick Mortimer, said that making the case for Zealandia to be considered a separate continent was difficult because the majority of it was underwater. “If we could pull the plug on the oceans, it would be clear to everybody that we have mountain chains and a big, high-standing continent,” he told TVNZ, a national news channel. “What we hope is that Zealandia will appear on world maps, in schools, everywhere...I think the revelation of a new continent is pretty exciting.”