Scientists studied life on a new island, then it disappeared

When an underwater volcano erupted in 2015, it created a new island as Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai Island emerged from the sea. It would live quickly and die young with only a seven-year lifespan from emergence to submergence, but in those short years a team of scientists had time to scan the new island for signs of life. And boy, would they find it.

“These types of volcanic eruptions happen all over the world, but they don’t usually produce islands,” Nick Dragone, a CIRES PhD student who worked on the island, said in a statement. “We had an incredibly unique opportunity. No one had ever thoroughly studied the microorganisms on this type of island system at such an early stage before.”

The unique opportunity to study an entirely new island gave Dragone and his colleagues an “unparalleled natural laboratory” where they could study the earliest stages of an ecosystem’s development, even before plants and animals enter the picture. They looked for the microscopic islanders, and to find them they took soil samples which were then analyzed using DNA sequencing.

“We didn’t see what we expected,” Dragone said. “We thought we’d see organisms you find when a glacier retreats, or cyanobacteria, more typical early colonizer species—but instead we found a unique group of bacteria that metabolize sulfur and atmospheric gases.”

Island of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, Kingdom of Tonga and the location of 32 surfaces where samples were collected. Image credit: Worldview-2 image © 2010, 2018 Maxar, CC BY 4.0

The island’s volcanic origin probably explains the unusual number of microbes, as they enjoy feeding on the sulfur and hydrogen sulfide gas so common on islands born of eruptions. For this reason, microbial ecosystems often mirror those found in similar locations, such as hydrothermal vents, hot springs, and other volcanic areas.

It was an exciting and unique adventure for the team of researchers working at Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, but it would not last long. Seven years after it first rose from the sea, the island was destroyed by the very thing that brought it about: a volcanic eruption.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano that erupted under the Pacific Ocean on January 15, 2022 had an explosion so powerful that it launched a colossal plume of water to a height of 53 kilometers (33 miles). The eruption transferred approximately 146 billion kilograms (322 billion pounds) of water into the stratosphere, destroying the island that Dragone and his colleagues had been working on until the catastrophic event.

“We all expected the island to stay,” Dragone explained. “In fact, the week before the island exploded, we started planning a return trip.”

The team was sad to see their temporary field site disappear, but you never know what the future holds when working in volcanically active regions.

“We are of course disappointed that the island is gone, but now we have many predictions about what happens when islands form,” Dragone concluded. “If something happened again, we would like to go there and collect more data. We wanted a plan for how to study it.”

The study was published in mBio.

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