Scientists Discover New Life on New Tongan Island
NASA reported the discovery of the first signs of plant and bird life, as well as the presence of an unknown “light-colored clay mud,” in Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai on January 30. Researchers first visited the island in October.
When an underwater volcano violently erupted in 2014, the magma and ash created debris that connected two smaller existing islands to create the world’s newest island of its kind, Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai. Scientists believed the island was like other temporary land masses created by active volcanoes and expected the tide to wash it away.
However, the island, part of Tonga, has endured the tide and is now the third island to form in such a way in 150 years. The island has probably survived, according to volcanologist Jess Phoenix, because of chemical reactions between ash and seawater “that allowed it to solidify more than it usually would.”
Since 2015, NASA’s Goddard Center has worked to better understand this anomaly by mapping the island using satellites and sending an expedition in October to examine the vegetation and soil on the island. The “light-colored, clay mud” baffled Dan Slayback, a scientist with NASA, as it is clearly “not ash,” like one would expect from a volcanically formed island.
Vegetation on the island was also, at first, confusing as it formed very quickly, but Phoenix explains that the vegetation “was transported by animals—most likely through bird droppings—and volcanic land is pretty fertile.”
Future studies of the island will examine its unique resilience against erosion as well as possible applications and “invaluable lessons” the landscape could teach scientists about similar “features of planets such as Mars.” Though the island has survived longer than previously expected, NASA predicts that most of the land mass will erode in six to 30 years given the current rate of erosion due to rain.