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SYFY WIRE geology

Scientists Rediscover the “Lost” Continent of Argoland

And prevented a geological crisis in the process.

By Cassidy Ward
Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in The Mummy (1999)

There are half a hundred reasons that The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, became an instant and enduring classic. One of those reasons, without a doubt, was the inclusion of the lost city of Hamunaptra. For better or for worse, we absolutely love a story about a good lost city and if you can get your hands on an entire lost continent, that’s even better!

Roughly 155 million years ago during the late Jurassic period, a great continental chunk 5,000-kilometers long broke loose from the western edge of Australia. Today, all that remains in its place is a deep basin known as the Argo Abyssal Plain. Scientists could tell from the shape of the seafloor that the continent dubbed Argoland, moved away to the northwest, toward southeast Asia, but no sign of the hypothesized continent has been found. That is until a new study published in the journal Gondwana Research cracked the case.

The Ancient Continent of Argoland Was Broken Apart and Scattered

The disappearance of Argoland presented something of a problem to geologists if it couldn’t be found. “If continents can dive into the mantle and disappear entirely, without leaving a geological trace at the earth’s surface, then we wouldn’t have much of an idea of what the Earth could have looked [like] in the geological past. It would be almost impossible to create reliable reconstructions of former supercontinents and the Earth’s geography in foregone eras,” said Utrecht University geologist Douwe van Hinsbergen, in a statement.

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Part of the reason Argoland has been so hard to find is because it didn’t behave the way you might expect when it took its leave of Australia. Rather than move as a single piece, Argoland broke away in fragments and scattered itself hither and yon. Scientists used plate reconstruction software to model the movements of the continental plates between the Triassic up through the current day to see if they could sleuth out what happened to Argoland.

They found that Argoland was already broken into separate pieces by the time of the late Jurassic split 155 million years ago. By that point, it had organized itself into a loose collection of plate fragments punctuated by much older ocean basins dating back to the mid-Triassic, 200 million years ago or more. Scientists identified continent-derived blocks and tectonic “mega-units” spread across multiple islands, seafloors, and surrounding areas, all of which can be traced back to Argoland. Today, pieces of Argoland exist in southwest Borneo, Greater Paternoster, East Java, South Sulawesi, West Burma, and Mount Victoria.

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Sometimes, when tectonic plates split up, they do it in a way that leaves obvious evidence of their former orientation. Anyone who looks at South America and Africa pretty quickly recognizes how nicely they would fit together. These new models of Argoland make clear that plate tectonics isn’t always nice and neat, sometimes it’s more like reconstructing a painted window from shattered glass scattered over a gravel pit.

Odds are good an ancient evil won’t rise from the remains of Argoland to get its revenge on the living. But if it does, hopefully someone gets it on camera. Catch The Mummy, available from Universal Pictures.