New Zealand and Australia viewed from space
The vast landmass, which is attached to New Zealand, has been named Zealandia.
It was discovered by a team of 11 researchers using upgraded satellite-based elevation and gravity map technology.
They found that New Zealand and neighbouring New Caledonia are part of a vast 1.89 million square-mile single slab of continental crust that is separate from Australia.
Map showing Zealandia
They told the Geological Society of America: "The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list.
“That a continent can be so submerged yet un-fragmented makes it a useful and thought-provoking geodynamic end member in exploring the cohesion and breakup of continental crust."
The research team said it should now be considered a geological continent rather than the previously-held theory that it was a collection of islands and fragments.
They said: “Based on various lines of geological and geophysical evidence, particularly those accumulated in the last two decades, we argue that Zealandia is not a collection of partly submerged continental fragments but is a coherent continent.”
Australia and New Zealand from space
Zealandia illustrates that the large and the obvious in natural science can be overlooked
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As geologists count Europe and Asia as one giant continent called ‘Eurasia’, the new addition of Zealandia brings the total number of official geologic continents to seven.
Zealandia’s crust thickness typically ranges from six to 19 miles and is roughly the size of India.
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There is evidence to suggest it broke off from Antarctica about 100 million years ago and then again from Australia about 80 million years ago.
The researchers said: "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.
“Zealandia illustrates that the large and the obvious in natural science can be overlooked.”
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