The World’s Youngest Islands

Natural History
Hunga Tonga's sulphuric lake. Photo: Gianpiero Orbassano

Mark Twain once said, “Buy land, they don’t make it anymore.” But the great humorist was not entirely right. New islands routinely emerge from the sea. Not many, not big, often not permanent, but islands nonetheless.

Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai 

In 2014, the birth of a new island in the Pacific made world headlines. Just 60km off Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, violent eruptions from a submarine volcano sent hot ash and rock into the air. It eventually cooled and solidified upon contact with the sea.

This is referred to as a surtseyan eruption — one that takes place in shallow water. The volcano sits on a very active subduction zone between the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates. As a result of this volcanic activity, a 1.6km-long island appeared a month later.

Though incredibly young in comparison to many other islands, the island already began to possess distinct features including a mint-green sulphuric crater lake, mud, and gravel, and such signs of life as vegetation and seabirds.

In 2015, NASA studied this new island via satellite imaging and aerial footage. However, they weren’t fast enough to claim the first footsteps on its shores. In March 2015, Tongan hotel owner Gianpiero Orbassano and two others first set foot on the island to explore its suitability for tourism

Despite warnings from scientists to stay away because of its instability, Orbassano and his companions ventured all over the island, noting how hot the surface was. The first person to spend a full night, however, was millionaire Ian Argus Stuart, aided by documentary adventurer Alvaro Cerezo in June 2015. For an authentic castaway experience, he sustained himself with seagulls and squid for 11 nights.  

Unfortunately, all the excitement is likely short-lived. Scientists estimate that in just 30 years, the island will submerge beneath the waves. Waves are currently eroding it so quickly that its crater lake is already open to the ocean. This process will continue until the island totally disappears. This has not stopped NASA scientists from conducting astrobiological research, linking the island’s formation to that of Mars. 

Surtsey 

Probably the most famous of the world’s new islands, Surtsey has been a rare natural laboratory since 1967. Named after the Norse god of fire, it formed in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland, again from a prolonged volcanic eruption. It took place 130m below sea level and continued from November 1963 to June 1967.

At first, boats sailing in the area witnessed kilometre-tall black columns of smoke and ash. The island formed from contact between freshly erupted and explosive basalt and seawater. The result was a small, 2.7 sq km islet, with an elevation of 155m, made mainly of scoria rock. By 2012, erosion had reduced it to 1.3 sq km. The temperature just 20cm below the surface of the rock remains a toasty 99.6˚C. 

Vestmannaeyjar Island, with Surtsey island in the background. Photo: Shutterstock

In order to preserve this unique laboratory as long as possible, Iceland has put very restrictive measures in place to keep unwanted visitors out. All visitors must have government approval and they and their belongings must be thoroughly checked to avoid the introduction of seeds and chemical contamination.

Some people snuck vegetables onto the island, and authorities had them immediately destroyed. Nature took its course over the years, as seals, birds, moss and lichens, and insects eventually popped up without human interference. The first and only permanent human settlement was that of Arni Johnsen, a former member of Iceland’s parliament. For several months after the eruption ended, he became the island’s caretaker, monitoring scientists and reporting trespassers. He lived in a small house and encountered frequent earthquakes. 

Scientists have predicted that Surtsey will survive above sea level for another 100 years.

Sif Island

After discovering Sif Island in western Antarctica, it is likely that passengers on the Nathaniel B Palmer started to believe in destiny. In February 2020, these scientists were on the vessel collecting samples from the seafloor to investigate glacial retreat when they happened across a 350m-long volcanic granite island not previously documented or mapped.

It was near the Pine Island Glacier, which happens to be the fastest-retreating glacier in Antarctica. The ice covering it melted during this period of record high temperatures (for Antarctica), causing the island to rebound upward. Because this area is so remote and passing ships are so rare, it is hard to tell how long it has been in existence.

Researchers head to Sif Island. Photo: James Marschalek

Marine geologist Julia Wellner and three of her colleagues were the first humans to set foot on the granite islet, but not the first creatures to arrive. Seals had already staked their claim on the rocky surface. On exploring the surface and collecting samples, they settled on the name Sif Island, in honor of the Norse goddess of earth. This finding is proof of the dramatic effects of climate change: New islands are appearing not just through volcanism but from glacial rebound.

Bhasan Char

In 2006, the Bangladesh government noticed that a new island had formed at the mouth of the Meghna River. Forty square kilometres of Himalayan silt had piled up into what locals call the “floating island”, which lies 60km off the mainland. During the monsoon, the Meghna River carried sediment to the sea, which eventually accumulated to form a low island.

Not long after its discovery, this new land found itself at the centre of an intense geopolitical situation. The government of Bangladesh decided to use it to relocate Rohingya refugees who had fled the conflict in Myanmar. 

Bhasan Char. Photo: Patrick Brown/Fortify Rights

In 2015, Bangladesh launched the Ashrayan Project to develop the fledgling land to house thousands of refugees. Plans for roads, a helipad, houses, mosques, hospitals, water channeling, and farming infrastructure began. In December 2020, they relocated a few thousand refugees to the island, some against their will.

The island was very isolated, still unstable, prone to flooding and frequent changes in shape. The monsoon season’s ferocity concerned officials at the United Nations. Many stories have arisen of the cramped and unhygienic conditions.

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About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.

Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.

Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration.

Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

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MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
1 month ago

Love your articles Kristine!

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