Scientists discover 'Zealandia' - a hidden continent around the coast of New Zealand
The landmass matches all of the important criteria for being recognised as a continent
There is an entire, submerged and unrecognised content that has been hiding until now, according to scientists.
New Zealand is sitting on top of the geological entity, most of which sits underneath the South Pacific and so can't be seen, according to a major new paper.
The continent – known as Zealandia – is a distinct geological entity and meets all the criteria that are satisfied by the existing seven continents, the researchers said. It is elevated above the area that surrounds it, has its own distinctive geology, the area that it takes up is well defined and it has a thick crust – just like the seven masses we currently class as continents.
The new continent measures five million square kilometres and 94 per cent of that is underwater, according to the new paper published in the Geological Society of America's journal, GSA Today. It is made up of three major landmasses: New Zealand's north and south islands, and New Caledonia to the north.
Scientists said that by classifying it as a continent they would be able to study how they are formed and break up, and that it wouldn't just be a matter of moving from a total of seven to eight.
"The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list," the researchers from New Zealand's official geological body GNS Science wrote. "That a continent can be so submerged yet unfragmented makes it (useful)... in exploring the cohesion and breakup of continental crust."
Finding data on the continent has been difficult because so much of it is beneath the sea – and so mostly invisible – the researchers said. They have been attempting to do so for over 20 years.
"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," lead author Nick Mortimer told New Zealand TV station TVNZ.
Having the continent recognised isn't a matter of appealing to any official body, and there is no codified list of what continents exist. Indeed, some people hold there might be four, while most say that there is seven.
But recognising it as an important part of the way that the Earth is made up would be an important, if unofficial, step, Mr Mortimer said. "What we hope is that Zealandia will appear on world maps, in schools, everywhere."