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Tonga's newest island

A new island was born in the South Pacific Ocean in August. The surprised crew of the yacht Maiken bore witness to the island’s birth during the eruption of a formerly submarine volcano, called “Home Reef,” that has now breached the ocean’s surface. Home Reef volcano is part of the Tonga island chain.

On Aug. 12, during the second day of a trip from Tonga to Fiji, the yacht’s crew found themselves sailing through streaks of pumice floating in the water, skipper Frederik Fransson told Agence France-Presse on Nov. 8. Then, “the sea turned to stone,” Fransson said, as the crew sailed into a “pumice raft,” a belt of frothy volcanic rock that contains bubbles of gas and is therefore buoyant, floating in large, tens-of-centimeters-thick sheets on the ocean’s surface. Pumice rafts are rare, but have been observed before, and some biologists have suggested they may help disperse animal and plant species across vast oceans.

The new island may already be losing ground: Images from NASA’s Earth Observatory show that by mid-November, it had shrunk to nearly half of its size in early October. Whether the new island will ultimately vanish under the waves is unclear, and will likely depend on the “struggle” between the volcano’s power to continue to build above sea level, and how quickly it erodes, says David Sherrod, a volcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Carolyn Gramling

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