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What Are Lost Continents, And Why Are We Discovering So Many?

M. Seton and J. Whittaker and S. Williams

For most people, continents are Earth’s seven main large landmasses. But geoscientists have a different take on this. They look at the type of rock a feature is made of, rather than how much of its surface is above sea level. In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the discovery of lost continents. Most of these have been plateaus or mountains made of continental crust hidden from our view, below sea level.

One example is Zealandia, the world’s eighth continent that extends underwater from New Zealand.

Several smaller lost continents, called microcontinents, have also recently been discovered submerged in the eastern and western Indian Ocean.

But why, with so much geographical knowledge at our fingertips, are we still discovering lost continents in the 21st century?

We may have found another

In August, we undertook a 28-day voyage on the research vessel RV Investigator to explore a possible lost continent in a remote part of the Coral Sea. The area is home to a large underwater plateau off Queensland, called the Louisiade Plateau, which represents a major gap in our knowledge of Australia’s geology.

On one hand, it could be a lost continent that broke away from Queensland about 60 million years ago. Or it could have formed as a result of a massive volcanic eruption taking place around the same time. We’re not sure, because nobody had recovered rocks from there before – until now.

We spent about two weeks collecting rocks from this feature, and recovered a wide variety of rock types from parts of the seafloor as deep as 4,500m.

Most were formed through volcanic eruptions, but some show hints that continental rocks are hiding beneath. Lab work over the next couple of years will give us more certain answers.

Down to the details

There are many mountains and plateaus below sea level scattered across the oceans, and these have been mapped from space. They are the lighter blue areas you can see on Google Maps.

However, not all submerged features qualify as lost continents. Most are made of materials quite distinct from what we traditionally think of as continental rock, and are instead formed by massive outpourings of magma.

A good example is Iceland which, despite being roughly the size of New Zealand’s North Island, is not considered continental in geological terms. It’s made up mainly of volcanic rocks deposited over the past 18 million years, meaning it’s relatively young in geological terms.

The only foolproof way to tell the difference between massive submarine volcanoes and lost continents is to collect rock samples from the deep ocean.

Finding the right samples is challenging, to say the least. Much of the seafloor is covered in soft, gloopy sediment that obscures the solid rock beneath.

We use a sophisticated mapping system to search for steep slopes on the seafloor, that are more likely to be free of sediment. We then send a metal rock-collecting bucket to grab samples.

The more we explore and sample the depths of the oceans, the more likely we’ll be to discover more lost continents.

The ultimate lost continent

Perhaps the best known example of a lost continent is Zealandia. While the geology of New Zealand and New Caledonia have been known for some time, it’s only recently their common heritage as part of a much larger continent (which is 95% underwater) has been accepted.

This acceptance has been the culmination of years of painstaking research, and exploration of the geology of deep oceans through sample collection and geophysical surveys.

New discoveries continue to be made.

During a 2011 expedition, we discovered two lost continental fragments more than 1,000km west of Perth.

The granite lying in the middle of the deep ocean there looked similar to what you would find around Cape Leeuwin, in Western Australia.

Other lost continents

However, not all lost continents are found hidden beneath the oceans.

Some existed only in the geological past, millions to billions of years ago, and later collided with other continents as a result of plate tectonic motions.

Their only modern-day remnants are small slivers of rock, usually squished up in mountain chains such as the Himalayas. One example is Greater Adria, an ancient continent now embedded in the mountain ranges across Europe.

Due to the perpetual motion of tectonic plates, it’s the fate of all continents to ultimately reconnect with another, and form a supercontinent.

But the fascinating life and death cycle of continents is the topic of another story.

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11 COMMENTS

    • Just wait for the Te treeety claim for all this underwater land.
      It’s a given that Maui hooked it 1000 years ago but threw it back.

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      • Threw it back.
        He was just sticking to his quota since they were guardians of the land…and sea…and the galaxy!
        There will be on photographic evidence from the on-board cameras they had on the waka.
        They may be a bit grainy as only 360p format then but if you look closely you can see taniwha as well.

        Hey, they make shit up all the time, why can’t I .
        Equally as ridiculous.
        and whitey cant question it!

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      • oh sooty, they have well figured in farming that into their pockets.

        Potentially could be a very rich resource, for fish, minerals and oil & gas.

        Just needs skills, experience, technology, with investment, to bring it all to the surface. 🙂

        Problem, so much to be declared as Significant Natural Reserve, never to be mined, never to be fished etc.. 🙁
        All to be managed by the UN’ical concepts of International World Heritage, that will claim they have the mandate to redistribute to others, that is their elitist pockets.

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  1. Bearing in mind that:
    – there was a massive cataclysmic event (NB a real one not the panty-twisting faux kind the lunatic left talk about so breathlessly) that caused the levels of the seas to rise 30m in a matter of months (and +100m over a couple of years) and
    – growing evidence to suggest that civilisation is far far older than the 4000 yrs closed minded non-scientific archaeology dogmatically holds to
    one has to wonder what wonders are hidden under the waves on this massive NZ pre-continent.

    Small wonder there is scant evidence in NZ of pre-history civilisations, after all with sea levels 300 ft higher, modern day NZ would be mountain tops and desert plateau in this far greater continent.

    Of course it wouldn’t do to find these wonders, as that would play havoc with the tagata whenua argument underpinning the treaty gravy train industry. (Ooops – this is inconvenient – but of course scientists say this is a natural formation because, as we all know, nature does everything in right angles (not!)

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  2. NZ (as we see it today) has been submerged at least once.
    It arose, went back down, and came up again.
    This is partly why there were no quadrupeds so the lazy birds did not need to fly.
    A couple of stoats and rats soon woke up their ideas, let me tell ya!
    Of course that Kea can flap about and get its claws into things.

    This is why it is so nonsensical to talk the drivel so many suckers buy into.
    Elements of the earth are always on the move for a variety of reasons that operate on different time scales; just as different solar cycles to the lunar cycles cause different coincidences.

    One inch sea rise in 100 years. Not a big deal on the scale of things.
    To use this shit to scare children shows just how scabby the perpetrators of these lies are.
    Then the Notional party got all excited and decided we need to pay $1.4 Billion a year for a decade because some dudes and terfs got on the Beaujolais in Paris a couple of years ago.
    These critters ignore science and facts are for geeks.

    Geographically NZ is a developing country.
    This is shown by the earthquakes and high level of volcanic activity there is .
    Rotorua anyone; 17% of the electricity supply.
    Surely a good lawyer (Sir Geoffrey 🙂 ) could argue as a developing country we should be exempt from ETS -like MOST of the world.
    ETS is a Europe centric thing and the sort of nutty idea they come up with there. Rock on Brexit.

    Stand on Mt Iron behind Wanaka and there is a sign that shows that much of the area was under ice 180,000 years ago and only 3 of the many visible peaks like Mt Aspiring were above the ice then.
    The Great Barrier Reef off Queensland has many emotional stories spread about it but it has only been there for less than 10,000 years in current form.
    20,000 years ago it was the Dryland Kevin Costner spend millions looking for !
    It is ever changing.

    Look at a map of Japan and see how easy it is to slide it into China just above Korea.
    Iceland and Hawaii are two lands currently in early stages of forming – on a geographical time scale.
    My aunty was born in 1930 and before she could even walk Napier trebled in size because the earth chucked up some extra land.
    Wellington Airport was a waterway when Te Tready was signed and Miramar was an island.

    The globby warming hoax is such a pathetic scam set against actual science and real geography.
    This underscores just how much churnalists and politicians lie.
    Cui Bono

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