Watch out, Australia: A rock mass bigger than Manhattan is coming! As the vast stony milkshake drifts along, scientists debate what effect it could have on life Down Under.
In August, NASA satellites spotted a light-colored blob in the ocean. It turns out, it was miles of pumice.
When frothy lava hardens quickly, pumice forms. The rock is so full of air holes that it floats. Gritty pumice is used in cleaning products, polishes, erasers—and as the stone for “stone washing” fabric.
Geologists believe this summer’s 58-square-mile mass—called a “raft”—likely came from an underwater volcano that erupted near the Pacific island of Tonga.
Volcanoes have “dramatic ways to announce their presence,” NASA scientists say. Those God-created spectacles can include columns of ash, lava and mud flows, earthquakes, and even new islands bulging above the water.
Scott Bryan is a geology professor who studies underwater volcanoes at Queensland University. He says pumice shows up in rafts like this every five years or so.
This raft is Australia-bound. Experts estimate the voyage may take as long as 12 months.
Australian sailors Michael and Larissa Hoult encountered the pumice in August. They posted photos and videos on Facebook. The raft resembles a thick, gray fluid. It rolls and swells along with the ocean waves. The Hoults say there were “stones from marble to basketball size” as far as they could see.
Scientists believe the raft could be home to creatures like crabs, barnacles, and corals. As the pumice bobs with the current toward Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the sea life travels along too.
“Each piece of pumice is a rafting vehicle . . . for marine organisms to attach and hitch a ride across the deep ocean,” Bryan says. The arrival of new life could help Australia’s reef, which has seen coral bleaching and die-off in recent years. But it could also introduce harmful species to the region.
Marine scientists worry about the Great Barrier Reef’s dying corals. Some hope the animals on the pumice raft will help replenish the reef’s sea life, especially corals. (Read about reef health in “Northern Red Sea Corals Are Thriving” at https://teen.wng.org/node/5268.)
But Mark Eakin, a coral reef specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, calls that “a bit of wishful thinking.” He says corals can grow on pumice, but he believes the amount on this raft probably won’t make a difference for Australia’s vast reef.
Regardless of whether the pumice helps, for the next year or so, it’s making part of the Pacific a very rocky road.