FunNature & AnimalThis island could disappear in a few years

This island could disappear in a few years

Three years ago, the place you see illustrating these lines did not exist. Suddenly, an underwater volcano erupted in the South Pacific and, after the smoke and ash dispersed, a new landmass had appeared: an island that no one had seen before. Thus was born the volcanic island Hunga Tonga, located between two uninhabited Polynesian islands that are part of the Kingdom of Tonga.

In the past 150 years, only three volcanic islands have emerged like this and survived for just a few months, the most famous of which is Surtsey , which appeared off the southern coast of Iceland during an eruption that began in 1963.

However, Hunga Tonga is different. It is the only type of island that has emerged in the age of modern satellites, giving us a new way to study how these rocky land masses evolve. In fact, scientists are already using satellite data to learn as much as possible about it, before erosion makes it disappear under the water again.

“There is a large amount of material that came out of this eruption, possibly larger than in Surtsey,” says geologist Vicki Ferrini of Columbia University (USA), who is studying the island with NASA researchers.

At first, scientists were convinced that Hunga Tonga would last a few months before disappearing, but the island, which spans about 200 hectares and 120 meters above the ocean, could survive for as long as 30 years.

Using satellite data updated in real time, the team of scientists is developing three-dimensional maps of the island’s topography, studying its changing coastlines and the amount of land that is above sea level.

Our interest is to calculate how much the three-dimensional landscape changes over time, particularly its volume, ” says chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Jim Garvin. “It’s the first step in understanding erosion rates and processes and figuring out why it persisted longer than most people expected.”

These data could inform us about the behavior of volcanic lands that exist much, much further away, like on Mars.

“Everything we learn about what we see on Mars is based on experience interpreting phenomena on Earth,” says Garvin. “ We think there were eruptions on Mars at a time when there were areas of persistent surface water . We could use this new island of Tonga and its evolution as a way to test whether any of them represented an oceanic environment or an ephemeral lake.”

There’s not much time

No one knows for sure how long this volcanic island will endure, but we know that it will not live forever, due to the unstable solidified ash cliffs of Hunga Tonga that will completely erode in the next few years.

The findings were presented at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall 2017 Meeting in New Orleans this week.

NOTE: If you do a search for ‘Hunga Tonga’ in the normal Maps view of Google Maps, you will see an outdated illustration of two islands separated by a stretch of blue water; but if you move to the satellite view, the newborn island is revealed to us in all its splendor.


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