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What we know about Mauritia, the lost — and now found — continent


| Thursday, February 23, 2017

MarketWatch

This discovery shows how important it is to explore the Earth, not only the universe

It’s not every day that a new continent is discovered.

But it just happened. Lewis D. Ashwal, a geoscientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, published a paper about it in Nature Communications.

He unearthed 13 grains of zircon on the small island of Mauritius. Using uranium-lead dating techniques, the scientist estimated that the minerals were 3 billion years old. Mauritius, however, is only 8 million years old, which means that the grains didn’t form alongside the island, but were expelled by underwater volcanic activity.

So how does this explain the existence of another continent?

Well, Ashwal explains that the Earth consists of two parts: continents, which are old, and young oceans. This means that although ancient rocks and minerals can be found on continents, nothing billions of years old exists in the oceans. In that case, the very ancient zircons must have originated from a continent. The professor also claims that these findings suggest the existence of other lost fragments of that same continent, collectively called Mauritia, spread over the Indian Ocean’s crust.

What do we know about Mauritia?

During the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic era, the Earth’s continental mass consisted of one gigantic continent called Pangea. Eventually, it broke apart into supercontinents, which over the course of hundreds of millions of years separated into even smaller structures and formed the continents we know today.

The Mauritia microcontinent was part of Gondwana, an ancient supercontinent that existed 200 million years ago, and before breaking apart, contained the landmass of today’s Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar and Australia, as well as the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Subcontinent.

The first hints of Mauritia’s existence date to 2013, when scientists uncovered variations in the gravitational pull within the Indian Ocean. Mauritius sits on one such area with a strong gravitational pull called a mass concentration, or “mascon.” These variations were attributed to the varying levels of thickness and density of the ocean floor crust, caused by the chunks of sunken land. Scientists concluded that these differences point to the existence of an ancient continent, lost deep beneath the ocean waves.

After Gondwana broke apart, the tectonic movement caused Mauritia to fracture and sink 84 million years ago. Underwater volcanic eruptions from the sunken continent created Mauritius, also spewing forth the ancient zircons that Ashwal collected for his paper.

We’re spending billions of dollars each year to reach the stars and understand the secrets of the universe, while we still haven’t solved all the mysteries here at home. What other secrets are hidden beneath the waves? I’m sure science will let us know soon enough.

This article was licensed through Dow Jones Direct.
Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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