Volcano Eruption Creates New Island Near Tonga

A volcano that has been erupting for several weeks near Tonga has created a new island in the Pacific Ocean. But don’t think “holiday destination” just yet—scientists say it could soon disappear.

The volcano has been active since December 20th, erupting in the ocean about 65 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of the capital, Nuku’alofa. The past month has been the first time in five years the volcano has rumbled to life, and just last week, it halted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for a number of days.

“During our observations the volcano was erupting about every five minutes to a height of about 400 meters (1,312 feet), accompanied by some large rocks… as the ash is very wet, most is being deposited close to the vent, building up the new island,” the Lands and Natural Resources Ministry said, adding that the volcano was erupting from two vents, one on the uninhabited island of Hunga Ha’apai and the other underwater.

New Zealand volcanologist Nico Fournie said he traveled by boat to within about a mile of the new landmass on Saturday, January 17th to closely examine it. According to his data, it’s made mainly of loose scoria and its dimensions are about 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) by 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles), rising about 100 meters (109 yards) above the sea. It’s also fairly shallow, at only 100-200 meters (328-656 feet) deep.

“It’s quite an exciting site, you get to see the birth of an island,” Fournier said. “Visually it was quite spectacular, but there was no big sound coming with it, no boom. It was a bit eerie.”

He added that as soon as the volcano stops erupting, the ocean would likely erode the island in its entirety within several months. In order for the island to survive, it would need to be made up of a more durable substance, like lava.

Fournier, who works for New Zealand agency GNS Science, said he was able to determine that the volcano was mainly emitting steam into the atmosphere. And that the small amount of ash it was sending out, he added, was rising no more than about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).

This news came as a relief to airline carriers, most of which resumed service on Wednesday, January 14th, as it is the ash that can be destructive to planes and dangerous to passengers.

As of now, the new island remains unnamed – naming rights will fall to Tonga’s king, Tupou VI.