I was reading this article about Zealandia and got excited that there could be an underwater continent. However, when viewing the image (below) it appears that Zealandia is much smaller than any other continent. The article says the bases considered were:

  • elevation above the surrounding area
  • distinctive geology
  • a well-defined area
  • a crust thicker than the regular ocean floor

Is there some criteria on size that should be met to be classified as a continent? If so, does Zealandia meet that criteria? Or, is it possible that Zealandia is a continental fragment?

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ If there were a geography SE (as has been proposed, area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/105114/geography), this would be a perfect question for it. I'm pretty sure it's a fairly subjective terminology topic that some conclusions has been set for (not too dissimilar to the big debate of what is a planet/moon). And so not necessarily as fundamentally scientifically-founded as most questions for geology. It still seems applicable to ask geologists; it may just be a question more about debate and history, perhaps even irksome to some. But still quite useful! $\endgroup$ Feb 17, 2017 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ Is size really what matters here? Or is it the fundamentally different composition of continental crust? For instance, if a large chunk of the mid-Atlantic ridge were above water (instead of just Iceland and a few peaks), it still wouldn't (IMHO, anyway) be considered a continent because it's made of oceanic floor material. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 17, 2017 at 19:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would think there would be a lower limit to a continent size. That's what I'm wondering. And, what distinguishes it from a continental fragment? $\endgroup$
    – f.thorpe
    Feb 17, 2017 at 21:16
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Did you read the GSA Today article? It's open access and easy to read for a non specialist. They answer all of your questions in there. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Feb 18, 2017 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ I read that article too. Interesting argument. $\endgroup$
    – wogsland
    Feb 21, 2017 at 13:48

1 Answer 1


In the GSA Today article that Michael linked to in the comments, it says:

The Glossary of Geology defines a continent as “one of the Earth’s major land masses, including both dry land and continental shelves” (Neuendorf et al., 2005). It is generally agreed that continents have all the following attributes:

  1. high elevation relative to regions floored by oceanic crust;
  2. a broad range of siliceous igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks;
  3. thicker crust and lower seismic velocity structure than oceanic crustal regions; and
  4. well-defined limits around a large enough area to be considered a continent rather than a microcontinent or continental fragment.

The first three points are defining elements of continental crust and are explained in many geoscience textbooks and reviews (e.g., Holmes, 1965; Christensen and Mooney, 1995; Levander et al., 2005; Kearey et al., 2009; Condie, 2015). To our knowledge, the last point—how “major” a piece of continental crust has to be to be called a continent—is almost never discussed, Cogley (1984) being an exception.

and goes on to mention:

Further­more, the 4.9 Mkm^2 area of continental crust is large and separate enough to be considered not just as a continental fragment or a microcontinent, but as an actual continent—Zealandia. This is not a sudden discovery but a gradual realization; as recently as 10 years ago we would not have had the accumulated data or confidence in interpretation to write this paper.

This part is important too:

spatial and tectonic separation, along with intervening oceanic crust, means that the Zealandia continental crust is physically separate from that of Australia. If the Cato Trough did not exist, then the content of this paper would be describing the scientific advance that the Australian continent was 4.9 Mkm2 larger than previously thought.

So to wrap it up, they say:

Being >1 Mkm^2 in area, and bounded by well-defined geologic and geographic limits, Zealandia is, by our definition, large enough to be termed a continent. At 4.9 Mkm^2, Zealandia is substantially bigger than any features termed microcontinents and continental fragments, ~12× the area of Mauritia and ~6× the area of Madagascar. It is also substantially larger than the area of the largest intraoceanic large igneous province, the Ontong Java Plateau (1.9 Mkm^2).


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