When the Maiken crew posted their observations online, scientists jumped at the news: Undersea eruptions probbly occur dozens of times a year, but they are mostly in remote places or at extreme depths, so they are rarely witnessed by humans. Greg Vaughan, a geologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says, “We decided right then that we needed to get in there and get some satellite data.” NASA’s ASTER and MODIS instruments captured bird’s-eye views of the new island, allowing researchers to gauge the temperature of the heated waters surrounding it and track the giant pumice rafts that the volcano had spewed out. By Vaughan’s estimation, it was the first time scientists had ever been able to study an island-forming eruption with images from space.
Meanwhile, volcanologist Scott Bryan of Kingston University in London was gunning for a research expedition to the island before it disappeared. Many new volcanic islands are ephemeral, lasting only months before disappearing again under the sea. “Ultimately, it’s a battle between the frequency and volume of eruptions and the wave action taking it back down to sea level,” says Bryan. The type of material that erupts also affects an island’s life span. True lava forms more enduring structures—like Surtsey in Iceland, which broke through surface waters in 1963 and remains exposed today—while islands of mostly pumice and ash are quickly torn down by the waves.
That didn’t bode well for Fransson’s find. When Bryan finally reached the site this February, he found that the new island—originally over a tenth of a mile square—had already nearly washed away. The rotten-egg smell of sulfur dioxide gas hinted that magma was still cooling inside. Although sea conditions were too rough to make landfall, Bryan was able to collect water samples near the volcano for chemical analysis, which is currently under way. By now, he says, a shallow seamount is probably all that remains of the surprise island at Home Reef.