New Zealand Adds New Maps of Lost Underwater Continent

zealandia website open for browsing

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The lost continent of Zealandia has a new website thanks to New Zealand. The official site features maps, published research on the lost continent, and more. Fiordland National Park is another natural wonder.

Fiordland National Park
The rugged and beautiful landscape of New Zealand is found abundantly in Fiordland National Park. Photo by Takuya TOMIMATSU / Shutterstock

Zealandia’s official website describes itself as “A portal for geoscience webmaps and information on the Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia region.” The name Te Riu-a-Māui is what Zealandia translates to in the Maori language. The site was developed by GNS Science, part of New Zealand’s official science endeavor.

“Welcome to the part of GNS’s website dedicated to Earth’s eighth continent,” the website says. “Here you can find a wealth of maps, graphics, and other information on Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia, much of it arising from work done in GNS Science’s Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia research programme (TRAMZ).”

The “lost continent” may be New Zealand’s most impressive natural wonder, but Fiordland National Park isn’t far behind. It’s a silver lining to glacial erosion that includes fjords, lakes, mountains, and cliffs.

Built Fjord Tough

Fjords look beautiful—steep cliffs with gentle inlets of water flowing through their valleys instead of grassy plains or rocky flats. Like all geological features, though, it’s interesting to find out how they were developed. All fjords were formerly glacial valleys filled with ice, so what happened?

“The sea level rose 400 feet at the end of the last ice age, so, when these valleys were being carved out by ice, they were all above sea level,” said Dr. Michael Wysession, Professor of Earth and Planetary Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “The sea was way off the coast, but as the sea level rose, as ice around the world melted, the ocean reached up and wove its way in between these peaks.”

Unlike most fjords, the Fiordlands specifically are on the edge of a mountainside. Specifically, the Southern Alps. Dr. Wysession said that the mountains there rise steeply to 10,000 feet or more and are covered mostly with snow and ice. They sit near an enormous fault line called the Alpine fault.

“Compression along the Alpine fault is pushing up the Southern Alps, fast—in fact, about seven centimeters per year,” he said. “The fact that this Alpine fault is not a straight line has pushed up and continues to push up the Southern Alps at a very rapid rate.”

This unique geological position gives the Fiordlands some of their splendor.

An Exclusive, Beautiful Rock

Thanks to the Alpine fault, Dr. Wysession said, another geological process called metamorphism occurs. As mountains are built along tectonic plates, preexisting rocks affected by temperature or pressure can create entirely new kinds of rocks. In the Fiordlands, a type of jade called greenstone is made.

“This is actually a metamorphosed rock that is made from fibrous materials, like asbestos,” Dr. Wysession said. “The more iron that you have in it, the greener the jade appears, but in any case, you have these compressed fibers that end up having this shimmering optical appearance.”

He added that this greenstone is very highly prized in Maori culture, even tying into Maori creation myths. It’s also used to carve jewelry, weapons, tools, and religious talismans. If you can go there (when the world isn’t undergoing a pandemic), you can even take some home.

“If you actually go to New Zealand today, all the craft and tourist shops will contain many of these examples carved into a variety of sculptures. But this rock is only found in this one region along the coast of Fiordland National Park.”

Dr. Wysession is Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Dr. Michael E. Wysession contributed to this article. Dr. Wysession is the Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wysession earned his ScB in Geophysics from Brown University and his PhD from Northwestern University.