A team of 30 scientists has embarked on an expedition to unlock the secrets of Zealandia—the lost continent whose existence was confirmed by scientists earlier this year. According to the research team, this hidden continent covers around 5 million square kilometers of area—more than half of the size of Australia—and could be the eighth continent in the world.

Zealandia exists beneath the South Pacific Ocean

In February, scientists confirmed that a lost continent, which was once part of a supercontinent, exists beneath the South Pacific Ocean. Scientists believe that about 100 million years ago, Zealandia, Australia, and Antarctica were all one continent.

Then, around 85 million years ago, Zealandia was separated from the supercontinent and started to move towards the northeast. This movement halted about 53 million years ago. The submerged Zealandia, according to researchers, now surrounds New Zealand. It extends from south of New Zealand to New Caledonia in the north and up to the Kenn Plateau off Rockhampton in the west. More than 90 percent of Zealandia’s area is submerged in the ocean.

The expedition will investigate the history and tectonic processes of Zealandia

The two-month-long expedition dubbed the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 371, started on July 27, with an aim to investigate the history, sub seafloor life, and tectonic processes of the hidden continent.

In this study, researchers will use the most advanced scientific ships available in the world to drill six ocean sites between New Zealand and Australia. The team will collect sediment samples from depths of nearly 800 meters. These sediments have been deposited over millions of years, and fossil evidence present in them will help scientists compile a detailed record of the history of the lost continent.

Expedition 371 will also try to investigate the shift in Earth’s tectonic plates that occurred about 50 million years ago in the direction of the huge Pacific Plate northeast of Zealandia.

According to scientists, the study may also help in determining how Earth's climate has evolved over the past 60 million years.

The Australian and New Zealand consortium that is organizing this expedition is made up of 16 universities and four government agencies.

It is being funded by the National Science Foundation and 15 member organizations. Participants in the IODP Expedition 371 have already started their journey, aboard the JOIDES Resolution ship, from Townsville in Australia. The research team is also being accompanied by the 20 crew members who are experts in drilling.