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Scientists expose India's 'hidden neighbour'

Scientists say findings suggest that the plateau, about the size of Germany and France combined, is just the tip of a bigger piece of lost continental crust.

world Updated: May 05, 2007 12:08 IST

A mini-continent that was formerly joined to India has been discovered deep under the southern oceans by the world's most powerful ice research vessel, said German scientists.

They spoke as the ship, the Polarstern, was due to dock on Saturday in its homeport of Bremerhaven, Germany after a 19-month research voyage to Antarctica.

The ninth phase of the voyage was a study of the undersea Kerguelen Plateau, which was orphaned after the ancient continents separated, with India drifting away from Antarctica.

The findings suggest that the plateau, about the size of Germany and France combined, is just the tip of a bigger piece of lost continental crust, the scientists said on Friday.

Geophysicists did seismic and magnetic surveys to explore the gap between the little-understood plateau and East Antarctica, the Alfred Wegener Institute of polar research in Bremerhaven said.

"This plateau was created by a massive volcanic eruption shortly after India and Antarctica separated about 120 million years ago to form the Indian Ocean," said geophysicist Karsten Gohl.

"For the first time, we have been able to see how the succession of volcanic deposits at the southern side of the Kerguelen Plateau, which reach right to the Antarctic continent, mostly have continental crust underneath them.

"Our findings show that a continental fragment of a size hitherto never suspected must have existed between India and the Antarctic."

The data will be entered into a computer simulation to study ancient ocean currents and world climate, said Gohl, who is one of two project leaders of a worldwide study of such gaps, code-named Plates and Gates.

The Polarstern also explored the melting of the Antarctic ice shelves, which may be due to rising temperatures, salinity of deep ocean water or volcanic activity.

The ship can operate in temperatures 50 degrees below Celsius and steam without stopping through 150-centimetre ice.