Sunday, April 23, 2023

Book Review: Mighty Bad Land is a memorable scientific adventure

Mighty Bad Land: A Perilous Expedition to Antarctica Reveals Clues to an Eighth Continent

by Bruce Luyendyk, with Foreword by Edward J. Larson

Permuted Press, 2023, 320pp.

How many people have discovered a continent? While geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk makes a point of sharing credit, he is the man who named Zealandia, a mostly sunken continent half the size of Australia and represented above the water by New Zealand and scattered islands. In this book, he chronicles the first of his three Antarctic expeditions that provided proof the continent separated about 85 million years ago from the ancient supercontinent Gondwana.  

In 1989, Dr. Luyendyk led a six-person expedition to Marie Byrd Land, a huge, unclaimed region nicknamed Mighty Bad Land. There was no airstrip, and they were beyond the reach of helicopters. His team had to be deposited and retrieved by ski-equipped military C-130s landing on the open ice. It happens that, I, too, have many flights in C-130s. They're uncomfortable under the best conditions, and Antarctica offers anything but. 

Luyendyk was the right man for the job, scientifically, but he makes clear he just barely made it through this trip. Nearly fifty years old, concealing injury, with chronic asthma and no experience leading a group in such a remote area, he cleared the medical and mental hurdles basically by force of will. It was his first trip to Antarctica, and he describes his adjustment to everything from eternal sun to conflicting chains of command. Luyendyk also recounts two humorous incidents at the American base, McMurdo Station, where he drew interest from women in a place where women are very scarce but lost both due to indecision about a "sort of relationship" in California (that did not, sadly, work out).   

Then it’s on to the ice, and the gripping story of the oft-beleaguered expedition. With him went two mountaineers and three other scientists, including his graduate student Christine Smith (who, yes, had a couple of incidents with male jerks). Luyendyk is frank about his own errors and uncertainties. He discovered many unexpected hurdles, adjusting plans on the fly for weather, ground hazards, aircraft schedules, internal conflicts, two near-death incidents, and even proper supervision of his grad student’s work given they were in different subpecialties.  But his team had the chance to do historic science, and they persevered.

The results were spectacular. The ton of rocks hauled out (barely) by a heavily loaded C-130 provided key parts of the puzzle that is Zealandia. Luyendyk’s painstakingly-taken core samples showed the magnetic shifts the area had undergone and how the mountain ranges had been “twisted and shuffled” over time, while geochronologist Dave Kimbrough dated rocks in all the locations they visited. Steve Richard and Chris Smith studied metamorphic minerals from the Fosdick Mountain range to determine its history and past deformations. The data from this and subsequent expeditions, synthesized and analyzed, told them why and when the new continent split off from Gondwana and proved the mostly-submerged region highlighted by New Zealand – thus, Zealandia – met all the criteria to be declared the eighth continent. Luyendyk published the name in 1995. The result revolutionized our understanding of the hemisphere’s geologic history and, incidentally, greatly expanded the seafloor territory over which New Zealand could claim economic sovereignty.

The author deserves great credit for making all this understandable. As a non-geologist, it took me two reads of some of the more technical sections to make me feel comfortable that I understood it, but I'd have needed at least twice that effort to gain a comparable understanding through textbooks or Web courses. Education and adventure are memorably entwined in a book that will enthrall anyone interested in the exploration, history, or geology of this still-mysterious land and its more-mysterious spinoff – our newest continent. Take this harrowing trip with Luyendyk and company, and you'll learn as well. 

Photos from the expedition (used by permission: credits at

    1. The geologists relax on Christmas Eve, 1989, atop Swarm Peak 

    2. The author peers out the ramp of a C-130

    3. The full team (four geologists, two mountaineers) in the luxurious accommodations of a C-130 en route to the study site

The author wasn’t sure whether he should make another expedition after barely staggering through the first, but, as he says, “We get to discover,” and that drew him back twice. These  trips aren’t described here, but there is more information on

  Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

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