A new island has sprung up in a patch of the southwest Pacific Ocean riddled with underwater volcanoes, according to NASA Earth Observatory.
It began with the eruption of an underwater volcano found in the Central Tonga Islands on September 10 – and within just eleven hours, a landmass emerged from the watery depths, created by oozing lava that had been cooled by the ocean waters and solidified.
Over the following days, lava continued to pour and the newly formed island grew. The island was 170 meters (558 feet) in diameter on September 16 and eventually swelled to 182 meters over the following two days.
By September 20, the island had grown to cover 24,000 square meters (6 acres) with an elevation of 10 meters (33 feet).
An annotated version of the new satellite image. Image credit: Landsat 9/NASA/NASA Earth Observatory/Lauren Dauphin,
The formation of the new island was captured through imagery taken by the Landsat 9 satellite on September 14. In this natural-color image, we see a vast plume of steam and ash drift away from the volcano. You can also see a cloud of discolored water growing around the landmass, created by the presence of superheated and acidic seawater containing volcanic rock and sulfur.
The new island can be found southwest of Late Island, northeast of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, and northwest of Mo’unga’one. This part of the Pacific is home to the Tonga-Kermadec subduction zone, an area where three tectonic plates are slowly crashing together.
All of this tectonic activity has endowed this part of the Pacific with a seafloor ridge that has the highest density of underwater volcanoes in the world.
Sadly, the infant island might not stick around for long. Weathering and erosion from waves and currents can quickly degrade the volcanic rock, meaning this newly formed island often disappears quickly.
Some new islands, however, do manage to survive. In 2014, an underwater volcano in this part of the Pacific erupted and forged the sizable island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. Although merely a baby, the island has already fostered a thriving ecosystem, complete with pink flowering vegetation, nesting sooty tern birds, and barn owls – much to the surprise of scientists.