We’re taught in elementary school that there are seven continents on Earth — Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America.
But geography textbooks across the world might have to add one more to that list — Zealandia.
Zealandia is a continent that is 94 percent submerged underwater, which is why it took so long for geologists to identify it. The 6 percent that is above water comprises what many know as New Zealand and New Caledonia, according to a study in GSA Today, the journal of the Geological Society of America.
Zealandia spans almost 2 million square miles, a bit larger than India. And while the idea of a mostly submerged continent in the Pacific has been known in the science community for a while, it was only in the last two decades that researchers accumulated enough data and observations to classify it as the world’s eighth continent.
In 1995, Bruce Luyendyk, a geologist teaching at the University of California Santa Barbara, coined the term “Zealandia” to describe New Zealand, New Caledonia and sections underwater that broke off from an ancient supercontinent, Gondwana.
“I wanted to just lump all of these masses together,” Luyendyk told ABC News today. “It was really just a convenient way to refer to this area.”
A continent two-thirds the size of Australia has been found beneath the south-west Pacific Ocean, scientists reported in the journal of the Geological Society of America.
The land mass of 4.5 million square kilometers (1.74 million square miles) is 94 percent underwater and only its highest points – New Zealand and New Caldeonia – poke above the surface.
“It’s rather frustrating for us geologists with the oceans being there,” said Nick Mortimer, a geologist at GNS Science in Dunedin, New Zealand.
“If we could pull the plug on the oceans it would be clear to everyone we have mountain chains and a big high-standing continent above the ocean crust.”
Mortimer was lead author of the paper titled “Zealandia: Earth’s hidden continent” which says the new discoveries prove what had long been suspected.
“Since about the 1920s, from time to time in geology papers people used the word ‘continental’ to describe various parts of New Zealand and the Catham Islands and New Caledionia,” Mortimer said.
“The difference now is that we feel we’ve gathered enough information to change ‘continental’ to the noun, ‘continent’.”
Mortimer said geologists early in the previous century had found granite from sub-antarctic islands near New Zealand and metaphormic rocks on New Caledonia that were indicative of continental geology.
If the recent discovery is accepted by the scientific community, cartographers will probably have to add an eighth continent to future maps and atlases.
“The paper we’ve written unashamedly sticks to empirical observations and descriptions,” Mortimer said. “The litmus test will really be if ‘Zealandia’ appears in maps and atlases in five or 10 year’s time.””Zealandia” is believed to have broken away from Australia about 80 million years ago and sank beneath the sea as part of the break up of the super-continent known as Gondwanaland.