Port Vila, Vanuatu (PressExposure) April 01, 2009 -- The raw power of a major eruption from an underwater volcano on the South Pacific Ring of Fire, is sending dramatic clouds of gas, steam, smoke and ash fifteen to twenty five thousand feet into the atmosphere. "I's a major eruption on quite a huge scale", Kelepi Maf says, Tonga's chief geologist. Scientists believe that a number of chambers of magma are fuelling the volcano.
The volcano commenced erupting on Monday 16th March, behind a chain of earthquakes which hit the local vicinity. Professor Simon Turner, a geochemist from the Macquarie University, Sydney, says "It is doubtful the quakes and the volcano eruption were linked. It would have meant the magma coming 110k to the surface in a few days and that would be extremely unlikely".
By the 19th the submarine volcano has expelled so much lava it has created the beginning of a new island, seven miles off the coast of Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. A large raft of pumice is floating about two miles north of the eruption. This new (ephemeral) island is still covered by smoke.
Simon Turner says"Submarine volcanoes can be violent and can strongly affect the climate. The present erupting volcano isn't hitting the stratosphere yet, but as it continues to grow that is very real possibility'.
It is possible for the new island to last several months, or even as long as a few years, before it is worn away by wave action. It is made up of pumice, a sample of rock that is formed when lava and gases erupt in relatively shallow water. The rock is cooled rapidly and becomes fragmented. Pumice weighs so little it floats. The wreckage from the volcanic explosion is anticipated to drift towards the southern coast of Fiji, where it will block the beaches.
A group of scientists are on their way to scrutinize the eruption and track its affect on the area.
A tiny island was newly formed in October 2006 in a similar volcanic explosion at Home Reef, measuring 800 m long by 400 m wide.
Scientists understand that about 75% of the worldâs volcanic activity occurs underwater in the world's deep oceanic basins, up to depths of 2.5 miles. This makes the eruptions very difficult to detect. An undersea volcanic eruption was first caught on film in June 2008. "It's the first place where weâve been able to observe an active volcanic eruption underwater, with a remotely operated vehicle", said Bill Chadwick from the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center, in Newport. "When the eruption is underwater you can detect the action of the gases a lot easier. Gases which are much harder to see in the air. The water pressure checks the intensity of the explosive activity, making it easier to examine the activity much closer up, compared to land volcanoes.
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