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Research voyage brings lost continent of Zealandia secrets to the surface

The research both upends the previous theory and establishes a new geological concept.

Professor Sutherland from the University’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences was part of the team of predominantly GNS Science researchers that made global headlines in 2017 when they announced Zealandia should count as a new fully-fledged continent, Earth’s seventh and smallest.

New Zealand to the south and New Caledonia to the north are the only major land masses of the otherwise mostly underwater Zealandia, which, at 4.9 million square kilometres, is about two-thirds the size of Australia.

Its continental crust is mostly between 10 and 30 kilometres thick, which is thinner than the 30 to 45 kilometres of the six other continents, yet thicker than oceanic crust, which is about seven kilometres thick.

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The first scientific drilling expedition to Zealandia in 1972 hypothesised it was underwater after its crust was stretched, thinned and ripped away from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana (which included Australia and Antarctica) about 85 million years ago.

Exclusive economic zone of New Zealand and continental shelf boundaries for much of Zealandia- Credit : Dennis P. Gordon

Although evidence remains compelling that this was at least part of the case, new samples collected and tested by Professor Sutherland and his colleagues during a nine-week Tasman Sea voyage under the auspices of the International Ocean Discovery Program indicate a key additional factor: Zealandia’s subsequent modification during the formation of the Pacific Ring of Fire about 50 million years ago.

The Pacific Ring of Fire is a zone of volcanoes and earthquakes that result from the geological process of subduction, where a tectonic plate sinks back deep into the Earth. The process by which the zone formed has always been a mystery.

“We propose that a ‘subduction rupture event’ propagated around the whole of the western Pacific at that time,” says Professor Sutherland. “We suggest the process was similar to a massive super-slow earthquake that resurrected ancient subduction faults that had lain dormant for many millions of years. This concept of ‘subduction resurrection’ is a new idea and may help explain a range of different geological observations.”

As a result of the Pacific Ring of Fire, “things that were in 1,000 metres of water came up to sea level and then subsided down to be more than 1,000 metres deep again”, he says. “The permanent effects included the New Caledonia Trough that comes all the way to Taranaki.”

Professor Sutherland’s team included more than 30 scientists from New Zealand, the United States, Italy, Spain, New Caledonia, China, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Japan, the United Kingdom and South Korea. He co-led it with Professor Gerald Dickens from Rice University in Texas in the United States.

They used a 300-tonne drill to make six boreholes up to 900 metres below the sea floor, from which rock and sediment cores were collected and analysed for clues about the timing and length of Zealandia’s uplift.

“We used fossils from three of the sites to show that northern Zealandia became much shallower and likely even had land areas between 50 and 35 million years ago. At about the same time, two other sites subsided into deeper water, and then the whole region subsided by at least a kilometre to its present depth,” says Professor Sutherland.

The team’s evidence shows that events such as the creation of the Pacific Ring of Fire “can dramatically alter the geography of continents, and the sedimentary record preserved on Zealandia will help us figure out in more detail how and why it happened, and what the consequences were for plants, animals, and regional climate”.

Professor Sutherland and Professor Dickens will be giving a free 30-minute public talk on the researchers’ findings, followed by an optional 90-minute first cut of filmmaker Adam Kurtz’s documentary about the expedition, at Government Buildings Lecture Theatre 2 on University’s Pipitea campus on Wednesday 12 February at 5.30 pm.

Scientists involved in the project will be at the University from 12–14 February to synthesise their findings and ideas.

The findings are published in the Geological Society of America’s journal Geology.

Professor Sutherland and Professor Dickens have co-written an article about their findings for The Conversation that can be republished for free under the website’s usual guidelines.

Victoria University of Wellington

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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