Pacific News Minute: Tonga Considers Name for New Island

Feb 12, 2019

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'api
Credit NASA / Youtube

Two years ago, we reported on a new island in the South Pacific that reminded scientists at NASA of volcanoes on Mars. One of those scientists got an unexpected chance to visit in person and found the four-year-old island teeming with life.

Beach morning glories have already taken root while hundreds of sooty terms nest in gullies. “The number of bird eggs, the number of baby chicks was astounding,” Rachel Scudder told The New York Times.

“There were places where we could not actually get up to the wall of the caldera for fear of stepping on baby chicks.”

Ms. Scudder is chief scientist for the Sea Education Association, a study abroad program, whose cruise to this remote corner of Tonga provided Dan Slayback a lift to an island that he’d been studying through satellite imagery.

In 2015, a spectacular eruption left a 400-foot ash cone atop an islet that measures about a third of a square mile. NASA expected the waves of the Pacific to break it up within a few months. Instead, the ash cemented; the island is now expected to last as long as a hundred years.

With the help of the students and a Tongan scientist, Slayback was able to take precise GPS measurements that will allow NASA to make an accurate 3D model. They’ll use that to compare the erosion patterns on Earth to thousands of similar volcanoes on Mars. Scientists believe that they, too, emerged from underwater eruptions. 

The Deputy Secretary of Tonga’s Ministry of Lands, Taaniela Kula, told RNZ Pacific that now that the island is expected to last for decades at least, they may ask the King and Cabinet to give it a formal name. Up until now, it’s been known by the names of its two neighbors, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'api.