NASA scientists pay first visit to volcanic island in Tonga so new it is not on any map

Swellnet Dispatch

The three-year-old volcanic island (centre) as seen from a drone. (Photo: Sea Education Association/SEA Semester)

NASA scientists have paid their first visit to an island that rose out of the sea from the rim of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano in Tonga when it erupted in 2015.

The island, which has no official name and which NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre researcher Dan Slayback had previously only seen from space, is nestled between two older islands in the South Pacific nation.

Mr Slayback joined scientists and students from the Sea Education Association travelling to the island by boat in early October 2018.

When they landed, they found a sticky and unexpected type of mud, plants starting to take hold that were likely seeded from bird droppings, hundreds of nesting birds — and a barn owl.

Scientists and students travelled to the island by boat in October 2018. (Photo: Dan Slayback)

"We were all like giddy schoolchildren," Mr Slayback said.

"Most of [the island] is this black gravel, I won't call it sand — pea-sized gravel," he said.

"And then there's clay washing out of the [volcano's] cone. In the satellite images, you see this light-coloured material. It's mud, this light-coloured clay mud. It's very sticky. So even though we'd seen it we didn't really know what it was, and I'm still a little baffled of where it's coming from. Because it's not ash."

NASA researcher Dan Slayback standing on the beach of the island formed by the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano. (Photo: Dan Slayback)

Plants beginning to take root in new soil

The group photographed the new vegetation growing on an isthmus connecting the island to one of its neighbours, some of it possibly growing from bird droppings.

Vegetation taking root on the flat isthmus of the new island, with the volcanic cone in the background. (Photo: Dan Slayback)

They also saw a barn owl, which probably flew over from one of the islands next door, and hundreds of nesting sooty terns in the cliffs surrounding the island's crater lake.

During his visit, Mr Slayback collected small rock samples for analysis back at NASA's labs, and tried to calculate the actual elevation of the island.

He and the students used a GPS unit to take precise location measurements, and a drone to complete an aerial survey to help make a higher-resolution 3D map of the island.

"It really surprised me how valuable it was to be there in person for some of this. It just really makes it obvious to you what is going on with the landscape," he said.

Being there in person enabled a better observation and understanding of the deep gullies running down the side of the island's cone.

"The island is eroding by rainfall much more quickly than I'd imagined," Mr Slayback said.

"We were focused on the erosion on the south coast where the waves are crashing down, which is going on. It's just that the whole island is going down, too. It's another aspect that's made very clear when you're standing in front of these huge erosion gullies," he said.

"This wasn't here three years ago, and now it's two metres deep."

The cliffs of the island's crater lake are etched with deep gullies eroded by rainfall. (Photo: Dan Slayback)

Island was never expected to last this long

When it rose up out of the Pacific Ocean in early 2015 after the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted, shooting rocks and lava into the sky, scientists did not expect the land mass to last.

But three years later, it is still standing — and, according to NASA, is one of only three islands formed from volcanic eruptions in the last 150 years that have survived for more than a few months.

While "there's no map of the new land", according to Mr Slayback, he and his colleagues have been watching it from satellites since its birth to try to understand why it has not yet been washed away.

Since the visit Mr Slayback has reportedly been using the data collected at the island to create a more realistic 3D model of the site.

This will help scientists better understand its volume, and how much volcanic ash and material erupted during its creation.

Mr Slayback is also said to be planning another visit to Tonga, to help answer questions about the sea floor surrounding the island.

This could help scientists to better understand why it is has so far been partially resistant to erosion — and why it has survived until now.

The island as it appeared on September 19, 2017 with the semi-transparent overlay of the area that was eroded between January 2015 and September 2017. (NASA: Cindy Starr)

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 6:43am

I love this stuff!

But the big question is.. what are the waves like?

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 6:54am

Also, Dan Slayback has to be the best name in scientific research since Walter Munk.

Nick Bone's picture
Nick Bone's picture
Nick Bone commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 7:18am

Hahah. Yes. I loved it - Mr. Slayback

I am the bone

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 7:21am

Perhaps even Dan's Layback?

They're all winners.

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups commented Friday, 8 Feb 2019 at 3:05pm

Not a scientist I know, but did you ever hear of Chuck Blazer, the FIFA delegate for The USA? That’s a farken’ awesome name right there.

crg's picture
crg's picture
crg commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 9:51am

Reckon Pottz and Turps will adopt it into their commentary to replace "drop wallet"?
"...and Jordy sets up the end section and wham...a massive slayback to finish...a big man turn from the big South African!"

I'm not cheap,
But I'm free.

redmondo's picture
redmondo's picture
redmondo commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 9:55am

Our amazing living planet, lands will rise others will fall. The morning glory vine is very canny the way the seeds float around the world.

Red Clement

regydogy's picture
regydogy's picture
regydogy commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 10:14am

nice , but fuck mars . how about we look after this planet . .

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 12:13pm

Latest Google Earth pass suggests there's a right hander running along the shore in front of the crater. It's definitely feeling the bottom though (as per the lines standing up), confirmed by the erosion image at the end of the article. I suspect other parts of the Island would probably drop off too quickly to create surf spots.. yet.

David Hunt's picture
David Hunt's picture
David Hunt commented Friday, 8 Feb 2019 at 11:58am

If you get a big enough set on a high tide you may be able to

1. Get a left on the other side of the bank
2. do the full loop around the crater
3. Get burned real bad,,,,,

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 12:15pm

Is that a fat right-hand point at the southern tip too?

cswells's picture
cswells's picture
cswells commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 1:27pm

Thoughts on the half-emerged rocky outcrop to the south-west of the island? A few large lines seem to be rolling through, wonder if it would create any large breaks.

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 4:52pm

Unfortunately the bottom contours look far too abrupt.....
Looks like right at the crater might be fun.

wbat's picture
wbat's picture
wbat commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 2:25pm

Maybe that's Mick's secret wave?

uncle_leroy's picture
uncle_leroy's picture
uncle_leroy commented Thursday, 7 Feb 2019 at 5:45pm

Doesn't look like it is going to last long once it breaks through into the crater lagoon , very soft looking clays/mud. Interesting to see if any solid rock underneath and it will be an island to last the ages.
Here is a very similar setup, Saint Paul Island in the Indian Ocean, rumour has it this was the scene of an almighty crayfish poaching expedition launched from WA many moons ago.,77.4902435,15250m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x270cf48a0f974a79:0x4d87f15a59303940!8m2!3d-38.7201976!4d77.5189458

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Friday, 8 Feb 2019 at 12:44pm

Wow what a location - also little wave in the crater mouth.
That's a shedload of fuel in a cray boat to get out there! I've heard of Perth to exmouth in a large cabin cruiser about 15K+ fuel?

Remigogo's picture
Remigogo's picture
Remigogo commented Friday, 8 Feb 2019 at 8:29pm

Uncle_Leroy if swell broke through, an interesting backwash maybe??

A secret spot called 'double slayback'.

JW call pull off a double rodeo me recons!

Remigogo's picture
Remigogo's picture
Remigogo commented Friday, 8 Feb 2019 at 8:19pm

G'day Swellnetonians.

Wow.. Impresive artical and vision.

Another secret spot not so secret anymore. Good one...