Earth may have a continent we didn't even know existed, scientists say. "If the elevation of Earth's solid surface had first been mapped in the same way as those of Mars and Venus - which lack the arbitrary datums of opaque liquid oceans - we contend that Zealandia would, much earlier, have been investigated and identified as one of Earth's continents," according to geological scientists in a report by the BBC.
The submerged land mass resides in the southwest Pacific Ocean adjacent to Australia. At nearly two million square miles, it meets the elevation and geology criteria to be considered a continent. Using satellite technology and maps of the seafloor, the scientists have concluded Zealandia is actually not as broken up as once thought and should be listed as one continuous continent next to the other seven.
"This is not a sudden discovery but a gradual realisation; as recently as 10 years ago we would not have had the accumulated data or confidence in interpretation to write this paper."
The scientists said classifying the area as one continent wasn't just a matter of putting "an extra name on a list".
"That a continent can be so submerged yet unfragmented makes it a useful and thought-provoking geodynamic end member in exploring the cohesion and break-up of continental crust."
Scientists have been advocating for Zealandia's legitimacy for more than 20 years. The GSA paper argues that labeling Zealandia a continent has significance for the way the scientific community will conduct its research in the future.
"The identification of Zealandia as a geological continent, rather than a collection of continental islands, fragments, and slices, more correctly represents the geology of this part of Earth," the paper's abstract says. "Zealandia provides a fresh context in which to investigate processes of continental rifting, thinning, and breakup."
"Zealandia illustrates that the large and the obvious in natural science can be overlooked," the researchers said. in a study first published by the Geological Society of America in GSA Today.