With so many South Pacific islands sinking beneath the waves, it's nice to see the land striking back now and then. The most recent example is off the coast of Tonga where volcanic action has driven a peak above the waterline in the last month. Now, we have the first photographs.
Numerous reports have described what is occurring as a new island, but this is no longer true. The unnamed apparition started off surrounded by sea, but has now formed a land bridge joining it to Hunga Ha'apai island.
Credit:CNES/Airbus. Hunga Ha'apai (left) before the eruption (top) and afterwards with the old island shrouded by cloud, but the extension visibile.
The new land rises to 250 meters (820 feet) and is approximately 2 kilometers (1.3 miles) across, making it substantially larger and higher than the existing part of Hunga Ha'apai. Without plant cover to hold it together, the peak is expected to erode quickly, with some speculation it may last only a few months. It is only six years since a different eruption greatly expanded Hunga Ha'apai's southern end, but little survives of what was added at that time.
Credit GP Orbassano. The lack of a safe harbor has kept Hunga Ha'apai uninhabited, but if the extension survives that may change.
However, GP Orbassano, who took the photographs on a trip to the island with two friends, hopes its size will be enough to maintain it long enough to become a tourist attraction. He told the local Matangi Online, “There is a lot of rock, it's not just ash. It looks like the moon.”
Orbassano said the surface of the newly emerged land was still hot, and there was a strong smell of sulfur. However, despite these traces of hell, he considered the trip heavenly, saying “it was a perfect day, with fantastic views – bright blue sky and the sea was the same colour as the sky.”
As well as a successful career as a painter and photographer, Orbassano runs the Waterfront Cafe and Lodge in Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa. While 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the volcano, Nuku'alofa is the logical waystation for anyone wishing to visit.
Hunga Ha'apai sits on the convergent boundary where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the Indo-Australian Plate. Both Hunga Ha'apai and nearby Hunga Tonga sit on the rim of a huge underwater volcano. The eruptions that produced the peak released so much ash two months ago that flights to Tonga were briefly canceled.
Vulcanologists have warned that the island is unsafe to visit, but this has not deterred seabirds, with Orbassano saying thousands are already laying eggs on the island.
Credit:GP Orbassano. Seabirds are already putting the land to good use, benefiting from the lack of predators.
Credit:GP Orbassano. The new peak seen between the pre-existing islands.