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Scientists Are Just Starting to Understand Earth’s Eighth Continent, Zealandia

It wasn’t always under all that water.

The view from the deck of the ship <em>JOIDES Resolution</em> while it drills a core sample.
The view from the deck of the ship JOIDES Resolution while it drills a core sample. IODP

Not many people have been to every continent on Earth—Antarctica is the toughest for most—but now there’s another destination for the true completists. The existence of an eighth continent, Zealandia, was only confirmed back in February. The landmass managed to fly under the radar for so long because most of it is underwater—just six percent of the India-sized continent is above sea level—mostly just New Zealand. And, not surprisingly, most of it hasn’t been surveyed or studied. Until now.

An international team of researchers just finished a nine-week, National Science Foundation–funded excursion to learn more about Zealandia and its past. They drilled down and took core samples in six different locations that were all 4,000 feet or more underwater. Scientists pulled up a total of more than 8,000 feet of rock and sediment that are providing, for the first time, a detailed record of the continent’s geology, climate, and even life over millions of years. Pollen from land-dwelling plants suggests that now-submerged parts of Zealandia were once at the surface, and microscopic shell fossils suggest that, at times, it was covered by a warm, shallow sea.

A map of Zealandia.
A map of Zealandia. IODP

The continent probably took its first dive underwater about 80 million years ago, when it separated from Antarctica and Australia. About 30 to 40 million years after that separation (after the dinosaurs all went extinct), the Pacific Ring of Fire formed and caused Zealandia’s seabed to buckle. These cores are going to keep scientists busy for a long time. They have an entire continent to explore.