Is New Zealand six-times bigger than what, you may ask? The answer is six-times bigger than everyone thought it was.

     Since Roman times there has been a persistent belief that the known world is missing one continent. It doesn’t seem logical that the majority of the Earth’s land mass should be concentrated in the northern hemisphere. There ought to be an eighth continent somewhere in the southern hemisphere as a balance. The problem was, no-one could find one.

     The first recorded attempt to locate this mythical continent was by Abel Tasman, in 1642. He sailed from his company’s base in Jakarta, Indonesia, and headed west, then south, then east. His arrival at the south island of New Zealand was not exactly encouraging. An incident with the local Maoris left four Europeans dead, and Tasman himself never set foot on the new land. He called the location “Murderer’s Bay”, and never came back. However, that didn’t stop him from claiming he had discovered the “lost” continent.

     Little did Tasman know, he was right. There was a missing continent, located pretty much where he thought it should be.

     In 2017, just a little later, a group of geologists announced their discovery of Zealandia. A vast continent of 1.89 million square miles, which is about six-times the size of Madagascar. Impossible, you might say. How could the world miss something that big?

     The catch was, and is, that 94% of the eighth continent is two kilometres underwater. The only above surface evidence for its existence is New Zealand, New Caledonia, and the small Australian outcrops of Lord Howe Island and Ball’s Pyramid.

     The first real clue that Zealandia existed had come a little earlier. It came from the Scottish Naturalist, Sir James Hector. He was on a voyage to survey several small islands off the south coast of New Zealand in 1895. He concluded that New Zealand is “the remnant of a mountain-chain that formed the crest of a great continental area that stretched far to the south and east, and which is now submerged…”

     In 1960 geologists finally agreed on the definition of a continent. They specified that a continent is defined as a geological area with a high elevation, wide variety of rocks, and a thick crust. They added, somewhat unscientifically and redundantly, “it also has to be big”.

     In 1995, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force. The Convention states that countries can extend their legal territories beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones, which reach 200 nautical miles out from their coastlines, to claim their “extended continental shelf” – with all the mineral riches and oil this encompasses. That set off a flurry of exploration.

     If New Zealand could prove it was part of a larger continent, the question “Is New Zealand six-times bigger?” would become very relevant. It could result in an economic bonanza for the country.

     This story deserves the detail that cannot be contained in one blog. So, the story continues next week.

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