'Icelandia' — Is Iceland the tip of a vast, sunken continent? New
theory could revolutionise geological thinking.
Durham, UK: Academics believe they have identified a remarkable geological
secret; a sunken continent hidden under Iceland and the surrounding ocean,
which they have dubbed ‘Icelandia’.
An international team of geologists, led by Gillian Foulger, Emeritus
Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham
University (UK), believe the sunken continent could stretch from Greenland
all the way to Europe.
It is believed to cover an area of ~ 600,000 km2 but when
adjoining areas west of Britain are included in a “Greater Icelandia” the
entire area could be ~1,000,000 km2 in size.
If proven, it means that the giant supercontinent of Pangaea, which is
thought to have broken up over 50 million years ago, has in fact not fully
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
are contained in continental crust.
The revolutionary new theory was born from an innovative series of expert
meetings held in Durham (UK) and is included in a dedicated chapter of In the Footsteps of Warren B. Hamilton: New Ideas in Earth Science
published today (29 June 2021), by the Geological Society of America, which
Professor Foulger has co-written with Dr Laurent Gernigon of the Geological
Survey of Norway and Professor Laurent Geoffroy of the Ocean Geosciences
Laboratory, University of Brest (France).
Speaking about the new theory Professor Foulger said:
“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. For example, the crust under Iceland is over 40 km thick –
seven times thicker than normal oceanic crust. This simply could not be
“However, when we considered the possibility that this thick crust is
continental, our data suddenly all made sense. This led us immediately to
realise that the continental region was much bigger than Iceland itself –
there is a hidden continent right there under the sea.
“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.
“We could eventually see maps of our oceans and seas being redrawn as our
understanding of what lies beneath changes.”
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
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 pounds to fund, but such is
the importance of this work that funding may well be forthcoming.
Professor Foulger is a world-leading geologist whose research has
contributed to mapping the geological composition of the seabed in relation
to continental land masses.
This work has important legal and political ramifications as, 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.
Professor Philip Steinberg, Director of IBRU, Durham University’s Centre
for Borders Research, noted: “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.
“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."
About the research team
Professor Gillian Foulger is an Emeritus Professor of Geophysics in the
Department of Earth Sciences, Durham.
Dr Laurent Gernigon is a Senior Researcher at the Geological Survey of
Professor Laurent Geoffroy is a geodynamician and tectonician at the Ocean
Geosciences Laboratory (CNRS), University of Brest (France).
Professor Gillian Foulger is available for interview and can be contacted
by email firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, please contact Durham University Marketing and
Communications Office on
The chapter, Icelandia, by Foulger, Gernigon, and Geoffroy is part of In the Footsteps of Warren B. Hamilton: New Ideas in Earth Science
, published by the Geological Society of America. The chapter was published online on 29 June 2021 at 09:00 MTD (16:00 BST).
A PDF copy of the chapter is available on request. Please contact Durham
University Marketing and Communications Office on
to request a copy.
A map showing the Icelandia and Greater Icelandia areas is available in JPG
form on request. Please contact Durham University Marketing and
Communications Office on
for a copy.
Useful web links
Professor Gillian Foulger
Dr Laurent Gernigon
Professor Laurent Geoffroy
Durham University Department of Earth Sciences
Geological Survey of Norway
Ocean Geosciences Laboratory, University of Brest
Durham University Centre for Borders Research
About Durham University
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based in historic Durham City in the UK.
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outstanding things at Durham and in the world.
We conduct boundary-breaking research that improves lives globally and we
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We are a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive UK
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Guardian University Guide and The Complete University Guide).
For more information about Durham University visit: www.durham.ac.uk/about/
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