A revolutionary new geological theory suggested that Iceland is just the tip of a vast, sunken continent – part of the former supercontinent Pangea.
Experts led by Durham University believe that the hidden continent of Iceland could cover about 231,000 square miles from Greenland all the way to Europe.
When the neighboring regions of western Britain are included in “Greater Iceland”, however, this area can extend to about 386,000 square miles in total.
Icelandic theory challenges old ideas about the formation of the crust under the North Atlantic, as well as how volcanic islands like Iceland were formed.
According to the team, this previously unknown plate of continental crust could contain untapped mineral and hydrocarbon resources.
The formation of Pangea 335 million years ago saw the land masses on Earth to form a supercontinent with an area of about 57.83 million square miles.
Its gradual disintegration – lasting from about 175 to 50 million years – opened up the Atlantic Ocean and led to the continental distribution we see today.
In the new theory, Pangea didn’t completely disintegrate along the mid-Atlantic, but instead stretched part of it — similar to a string of cheese suspended between two split pizza slices — leaving the crust of continental Iceland crossing the gap.
A revolutionary new geological theory suggested that Iceland is just the tip of a vast, sunken continent – part of the former supercontinent Pangea. Pictured: Bathymetric map of the sea floor around Iceland, continental margins (purple line) showing the proposed extent of Iceland (purple) and the Greater Iceland area (beige)
“So far, Iceland has baffled geologists because current theories that it is built from – and surrounded by – oceanic crust are not supported by multiple geological data,” explained study leader and geophysicist Gillian Folger of Durham University.
For example, the crust under Iceland is more than 40 kilometers long [25 miles] Thick – seven times the thickness of ordinary oceanic crust. This is simply inexplicable.
However, when we considered the possibility that this thick crust might be continental, our data suddenly made sense.
This immediately led us to the realization that the continental area was much larger than Iceland itself – there is a continent hidden there under the sea.
There is great work to be done to prove the existence of Iceland but it also opens up an entirely new perspective on our geological understanding of the world.
Something similar can happen in many places. We can finally see a re-mapping of our oceans and seas as our understanding of what lies beneath the earth changes.
Professor Folger explained that if Iceland did exist, it would remove the need to imagine a hotspot of magma rising under Iceland to explain the composition and geology of the Icelandic plateau.
“So far, Iceland has baffled geologists because current theories that it is built from – and surrounded by – oceanic crust are not supported by multiple geological data,” explained study leader and geophysicist Gillian Folger of Durham University. Pictured: an active lava flow on Mount Fagradalsfjall in Iceland
Professor Folger and her colleagues are now looking to collaborate with other experts from around the world to test their theory, once COVID-19 allows.
According to the team, this could include various investigations of the nature of the crust under the proposed extent of Iceland and special studies of tiny crystals called zircon that can be used to date and determine the source of some of the rocks.
A more physical, if costly, approach could lead to efforts to drill into Iceland’s lower crust to look for distinctive continental signatures.
“Something similar could happen in many other places,” Professor Folger said. We can finally see maps of our oceans and seas being redrawn as our understanding of what lies beneath the earth changes. Pictured: a map of the globe, showing the location of possible continental parts such as Iceland (in red) and large igneous elements (in purple)
If hidden continents like Iceland did exist, such would have significant legal and political ramifications.
Under UN law, coastal states can claim exclusive rights to the mineral resources of the nearby sea floor if it is proven by researchers that this is a sinking extension of the continental land mass.
Durham University geographer Philip Steinberg commented, “Countries around the world are spending enormous resources conducting subsea geological research in order to delineate the continental shelves and claim exclusive mineral rights there.”
The formation of Pangea 335 million years ago saw the land masses on Earth to form a supercontinent with an area of about 57.83 million square miles. Its gradual disintegration (shown above) – lasting from about 175 to 50 million years – opened up the Atlantic Ocean and led to the continental distribution we see today.
‘Searching like Professor Folger […] It forces us to rethink the relationship between the sea floor and continental geology.
He added that this “could have a far-reaching impact on countries trying to determine what area of the seabed is an exclusive reserve for them and what areas should be governed by the International Seabed Authority as a ‘common heritage of mankind’.”
Full details of the theory are described in a dedicated chapter of the book “In the Footsteps of Warren B. Hamilton: New Ideas in the Earth Sciences,” which is published by the Geological Society of America today.
The Earth moves under our feet: tectonic plates move through the mantle and produce earthquakes as they struggle with each other
Plate tectonics consist of the Earth’s crust and the upper mantle.
Below is the asthenosphere: the warm, viscous conveyor belt of rock on which tectonic plates ride.
The Earth contains fifteen tectonic plates (pictured) that together form the landscape we see around us today.
Earthquakes typically occur at tectonic plate boundaries, where one plate dips under the other, pushes another upward, or where the edges of the plates stack next to each other.
Earthquakes rarely occur in the middle of plates, but they can occur when old faults or faults below the surface are reactivated.
These areas are relatively weak compared to the surrounding plate, and can easily slide and cause an earthquake.