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The team will use a vessel similar to this one to drill into Zealandia. Image: International Ocean Discovery Program

The team will use a vessel similar to this one to drill into Zealandia. Image: International Ocean Discovery Program


The Inertia

Remember a few months ago when researchers realized we’ve all been sitting on top of a whole continent without knowing it? Well, we are. And now, researchers are going to drill into it in hopes that the real life Atlantis is holding the answers to some very old questions.

Called Zealandia, the sunken continent lies beneath the sea. New Caledonia and New Zealand are the bits of it that poke above the surface.

“In a research paper published by the Geological Society of America titled Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continentresearchers say the islands we know as New Zealand are actually just the top of 4.9 million square kilometers of landmass,” wrote our very own Juan Hernandez. “The catch here is that the two islands are just 6% of what’s now being called Zealandia. The other 94% of Zealandia remain underwater with all the qualifications of a bonafide continent: a large, continuous, discrete mass of land with crust thicker than the ocean floor, elevation above the surrounding area, and distinctive geology. Altogether, it’s about two-thirds the size of Australia, which geologists are saying it literally broke away from between 60 and 85 million years ago.”

Beginning this week, a team of 30 researchers from the International Ocean Discovery Program is starting a two-month project to find out exactly what happens when an entire continent sinks. Drilling at six different sites, the IODP team wants to pull sediment samples from more than a 1,000 feet under the sea floor.

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“We’re really looking at the best place in the world to understand how plate subduction initiates,” expedition co-chief scientist Gerald Dickens, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary science at Rice University, said in a statement. “This expedition will answer a lot of lingering questions about Zealandia.”

Here’s what researchers figure happened. For millions of years, Australia, Antarctica, and the new continent Zealandia were all one large continent. Somewhere around 85 million years ago, however, Zealandia decided to strike out on its own. But, since oceanic plates generally get smashed down by continental ones–that’s that subduction thing your teacher told you about–Zealandia was at the center of a plate shift of enormous proportions.

“Some 50 million years ago, a massive shift in plate movement happened in the Pacific Ocean,” said Jamie Allan, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which supports IODP. “It resulted in the diving of the Pacific Plate under New Zealand, the uplift of New Zealand above the waterline and the development of a new arc of volcanoes. This IODP expedition will look at the timing and causes of these changes, as well as related changes in ocean circulation patterns and ultimately Earth’s climate.”

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By drilling deep into the sunken continent, the team hopes to find out what kind of massive forces caused the break to occur and hopefully answer questions about the earth’s climate way back when.

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