The Tongan volcano island giving scientists clues to Mars

  • 12/12/2017
The Tongan volcano island giving scientists clues to Mars
Photo credit: NASA

A new island off the coast of Tonga has scientists intrigued for what it could mean in relation to Mars.

NASA says the island, unofficially known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, was created following a volcanic eruption in December 2014.

Scientists initially thought the island would disappear within a few months as islands made of volcanic ash tend to erode quickly once the erosion has finished.

However a few months into its life it was clear Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai wasn't disappearing any time soon.

Geologist Vicki Ferrini believes that something must be changing chemically in the island to make it stay in place.

"The two islands that surround this new land mass have some pretty tough substrate, so there's something happening to help make this solidify and stay in place, chemically," she said.

That has chief scientist of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre Jim Garvin interested for the clues it could give him on Mars.

He says NASA can use the island to study similar Martian land forms to understand how they were made, and wet environments combined with heat from the volcano could be prime locations for evidence of past life.

NASA has two potential future scenarios for the island - that it mostly disappears within the next six to seven years or that the island and its cone made of volcanic ash would remain in place for 25-30 years.

Ms Ferrini and Mr Garvin currently believe the island's longevity is due to warm seawater interacting with ash following the eruption, similar to the creation of another long lasting volcanic island near Iceland.