~ New Zealand and the South Pacific ~

New Zealand and surrounding countries

Seeing New Zealand from space, with the country smack in the middle of view, goes far toward explaining this country's cultural and political history. New Zealand is located, or one might say isolated, far from any continental landmass. Australia is the nearest neighboring continent, and it's a full 1,600 km to the east. The next nearest landmass is Antarctica. This region overall is known as the South Pacific. It consists of thousands of kilometers of open ocean interspersed with relatively small islands. New Zealand is like the tip of an iceberg, in that it is actually part of a much larger submarine continent about half the size of Australia.

New Zealand's location accounts for the fact that it was one of the last large bodies of land to be inhabited by people. Just about one thousand years ago, in the 10th century, Polynesians discovered and began settling the islands of New Zealand. Polynesians have long been recognized as fantastic navigators on the open ocean. In fact, they regularly crossed and recrossed the great distances between islands in small boats.

Topographical map of New ZealandIn this way, they populated islands throughout the South Pacific. To put the peopling of New Zealand in perspective, consider that Australia was settled 40-60,000 years earlier, and North and South America approximately 10-15,000 years ago. Within 200 years, settlements were scattered over most of the habitable country. Still, another eight hundred years passed before Europeans set foot on New Zealand soil. The year was 1769, the people were Captain James Cook and his crew. By 1840, New Zealand became a British colony when native New Zealanders, Maori, signed the Treaty of Waitangi.

New Zealand remains an independent state within the British Commonwealth. The current population is under four million people The country's two main islands lie along a north-south axis and together they are about the size of Colorado. The climate is temperate and varied, ranging from rain forest to alpine glaciers. New Zealand has one of the few temperate rain forests in the world, matched only by ones in Chile and the U.S. A number of geographic features are worth noting. The North Island has active volcanoes in the interior and geothermal activity similar to that in Yellowstone National Park -- mud pools, geysers, and hot springs.

The most impressive feature on the South Island is the dominating presence of the Southern Alps. From the coastal plains of Canterbury and Southland, the mountains rise up to 3,754 meters at the highest peak. There are fiords, steep valleys and glaciers, all of which make for rugged scenery. As the saying goes, "location, location, location." New Zealand's rugged landscape continues below the surface of the ocean. Deep canyons extend offshore. The cold waters of Antarctica upwell from the depths and mix with warmer Pacific water. The upwelling brings nutrients from the sea floor and the end result is a boost to the food web. Fish and other marine organisms abound in these waters, both in numbers and diversity. These food-rich waters, deep and cold, are a natural attraction for giant squid.

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