It’s not very often that the world gets to witness the birth of a new island. That said, since the start of this blog less than two months ago, I’ve already had the chance to cover one such event off the coast of Pakistan, where an island was formed by pressurized mud release after an earthquake. Earlier this week, Japan proudly welcomed the newest member to its archipelago, which burst onto the scene in a spectacular display of lava and ash. The island is roughly 200 metres (660 feet) in diameter and part of the Bonin Island group, located 1000 km (620 miles) south of Tokyo. A spokesperson for the Japanese government said that it was too early to name the new territory, since it is uncertain whether the island is here to stay or whether it will disappear again. The island itself, basking in the limelight of the world’s attention, was unavailable for comment.
Volcanic activity is common in this region, given its location on the Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire is a ‘horseshoe’ defined by the boundaries of converging tectonic plates. As plates collide, very high heat and pressure is produced. It is therefore no surprise that the Ring is home to 452 volcanoes and the majority of the world’s earthquakes. (Check out this awesome National Geographic tool that ties together volcano, earthquake, and plate tectonics around the planet!)
Volcanic islands can be far ‘taller’ than they appear. Mauna Loa for example, the largest of the Hawaiian volcanoes, rises 4,170 metres (13,680 feet) above sea level, but reaches another 5000 m (16,400 ft) to the sea floor (and even an estimated 8 km or 5 mi below that)! Ignoring its iceberg-like ‘roots’ below the ocean floor, that still makes it more than 300 m (980 ft) taller than Mount Everest! Thus the newest addition to Japan’s family might be a baby in our eyes, but it has likely been building up slowly for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years.
PS: Until the Japanese government is ready to name the island, I propose the nickname Smaug. I feel like this is a name any volcano would be proud of. Tolkien, I hope you approve.
Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
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Cover photo courtesy of Tony, Flickr Creative Commons. Ring of Fire image from Wikimedia Commons.