DURHAM, United Kingdom — A secret, sunken continent may be hiding under Iceland and the surrounding ocean, according to an international team of geologists who are calling it “Icelandia.”
Researchers say this sub-aquatic land could stretch from Greenland all the way to Europe. Their findings show it may cover an area of around 230,000 square miles, but when the team includes adjoining areas west of Britain in a “Greater Icelandia,” the entire area could be in the region of nearly 400,000 square miles in size. That’s an area bigger than Australia.
If scientists can prove this landmass exists under the sea, it means that the giant supercontinent of Pangaea, which included all of Earth’s landmass before breaking up over 50 million years ago, has in fact not fully broken up.
This new theory challenges long-held scientific ideas around the extent of oceanic and continental crust in the North Atlantic region, and how volcanic islands, like Iceland, formed. The presence of continental, rather than oceanic, crust could also spark discussions about a new source of minerals and hydrocarbons, both of which sit in continental crust.
Could Icelandia spark legal and political fights?
Under certain conditions, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea grants coastal states exclusive rights to the non-living resources of their adjacent seabed if scientists can prove that the seabed is a submerged extension of the continental landmass.
“Until now Iceland has puzzled geologists as existing theories that it is built of, and surrounded by, oceanic crust are not supported by multiple geological data,” says Professor Gillian Foulger, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University, in a statement to SWNS.
“For example, the crust under Iceland is over 40km thick – seven times thicker than normal oceanic crust. This simply could not be explained. However, when we considered the possibility that this thick crust is continental, our data suddenly all made sense. This led us immediately to realize that the continental region was much bigger than Iceland itself – there is a hidden continent right there under the sea.”
Prof. Foulger, a world-leading geologist whose research has contributed to mapping the geological composition of the seabed in relation to continental land masses, led the study. The findings appear in the new book, Footsteps of Warren B. Hamilton: New Ideas in Earth Science, from the Geological Society of America.
“There is fantastic work to be done to prove the existence of Icelandia but it also opens up a completely new view of our geological understanding of the world. Something similar could be happening at many more places,” Foulger adds. “We could eventually see maps of our oceans and seas being redrawn as our understanding of what lies beneath changes.”
Uncovering Icelandia will be an expensive process
The research team is now working with collaborators from across the globe on work to test their theory, which will begin once COVID-19 restrictions ease. This work could involve electrical conductivity surveys and the collection of zircon crystals in Iceland and elsewhere.
Other tests such as seismic profiling and drilling would need millions of dollars in funding, but researchers believe nations would likely pay those bills for work of such importance.
“Countries around the world are spending enormous resources conducting subsea geologic research in order to identify their continental shelves and claim exclusive mineral rights there,” says Professor Philip Steinberg, Director of IBRU, Durham University’s Centre for Borders Research.
“Research like Professor Foulger’s, which forces us to rethink the relationship between seabed and continental geology can have far-reaching impact for countries trying to determine what area of the seabed are their exclusive preserve and what areas are to be governed by the International Seabed Authority as the ‘common heritage of humankind.”
SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.