May 19, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Instant Islands and Ecology

A new volcanic island near Japan recalls the rapid colonization of Iceland’s Surtsey island in 1965.

If scientists had not seen this island form, how old would they say it is? Like Surtsey, that arose off the coast of Iceland in 1963, the new island of Nishinoshima off the coast of Japan may surprise scientists. PhysOrg says that within 2 years, Surtsey was growing a new ecology:

“Since they began studying the island in 1964, scientists have observed the arrival of seeds carried by ocean currents, the appearance of moulds, bacteria and fungi, followed in 1965 by the first vascular plant,” UNESCO says on its website.

“By 2004, (vascular plants) numbered 60, together with 75 bryophytes, 71 lichens and 24 fungi. Eighty-nine species of birds have been recorded on Surtsey, 57 of which breed elsewhere in Iceland. The 141 hectare island is also home to 335 species of invertebrates.

Not bad for somewhere that has only existed for half a century.

Based on this knowledge, scientists expect that a similar ecology may arise quickly (in geological terms) on Nishinoshima, but perhaps more slowly since the island is farther from the mainland (1000 km) than Surtsey is to Iceland (300 km). Already Nishinoshima is about the size of Surtsey. They expect birds will be the first immigrants. Their droppings, hatchling vomit and skeletons will create a substrate for the first simple plants. “Researchers say bird waste will be the secret ingredient to kickstart Mother Nature’s grand experiment on what is a still active volcano that only poked its head above the waves in November 2013.” The rapidity of Surtsey’s colonization by life was a surprise to scientists at the time.

Some biologists have Darwin on their minds. “We biologists are very much focusing on the new island because we’ll be able to observe the starting point of evolutionary processes,” one said. The article also speaks of the “evolution of a habitat,” which is a very different use of the word. But if evolution is slow and gradual, do they really have millions of years to wait? The colonizers of Surtsey are all known organisms.

Update 5/27/15: Two more volcanic islands are emerging off the coast of Yemen. An article by Dave McGarvie on The Conversation includes video clips shot by a pilot during the eruptions. Even though most emerging volcanic lands erode quickly, some are expected to remain intact as part of a growing archipelago. “Perhaps the most exciting finding of the new research,” McGarvie says, “is that the birth of these islands suggests that the Zubair archipelago is undergoing active spreading and that further submarine and island-building eruptions are to be expected.”  Live Science posted a beautiful aerial photo of the archipelago, complete with smoking volcanoes, under its prosaic Mosaic headline, “Red Sea parts for 2 new islands.”

Mt. St. Helens, Washington

Renewal at Mt. St. Helens, by David Coppedge

Mt. St. Helens

This month marks the 35th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, another volcanic landscape that is also well on its way to recovering its ecosystem from the devastation that occurred on the fateful morning of May 18, 1980, when the eruption flattened 230 square miles of forest in minutes.  PhysOrg quotes scientists surprised at the rapid recovery:

“We’re still in a rapid rate of change,” said Charlie Crisafulli, research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “We’re gaining species. We’re getting to where all the players are out there. The land is getting filled in.”

One major noticeable change is the shift in dominant vegetation, from grass and lupine to deciduous shrubs and trees such as willow and alder, he said. A deciduous forest is returning to the landscape, changing the microclimate, light and other conditions and ushering in a turnover in species.

The article describes Mt. St. Helens as “a world-class outdoor laboratory for the study of volcanoes, ecosystems and forestry” that has also become a popular tourist attraction.

Galápagos Birds

An older chain of volcanic islands that is still partly active is the Galápagos. Famous for Darwin’s iconic finches, this ecology is suffering from invasive species. One of the species of birds, the mangrove finch, is struggling at the verge of extinction, National Geographic reports sadly. An invasive fly that arrived some time in the 1960s infects chicks in their nests and feeds on their blood and tissue, killing 95% of the nestlings in the first months of the breeding season.  It remains unknown if a currently-underway captive breeding program will be able to rescue the population in time.

Update 5/27/15: The Wolf volcano is erupting on Isabella island. Initial worries that the rare “pink iguana” on this part of the Galápagos was threatened (PhysOrg). It appears for now, New Scientist said later, that they are out of the danger zone.

Life on the Dry Edge

A location on Earth that is as dry as Mars nevertheless hosts life. NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine reports that even at the “dry limit” some species of bacteria are thriving in the Atacama Desert of Chile. This does not imply that life exists on Mars, however, despite the article’s comparison of the geological conditions. Atacama’s dry locale may be useful for testing life-detection instruments, though, for the next generation of Mars rovers.

What’s wrong with this syllogism? “Major premise: Life exists in extreme environments on Earth. Minor premise: Mars has extreme environments. Conclusion: Mars has life.”

The syllogism commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle. It does not establish that “all” extreme environments have life in the way that “All men are mortal” is inclusive of all men. It provides neither necessary nor sufficient conditions, furthermore, to expect that life must be found in extreme environments.  Yet this erroneous syllogism is the basis of much of the pseudoscience of astrobiology, as seen in NASA’s article.

Surtsey, Nishinoshima and Mt. St. Helens are all examples of rapid geological and ecological change witnessed by humans in real time. Humans were not around to witness the formation and colonization of the Galápagos islands, but it is reasonable to infer that long ages (e.g., millions of years) are not required to explain the observations there. So try this syllogism: “Major premise: Some diverse ecosystems are known to emerge rapidly in volcanic habitats (within a few years or decades, to the surprise of scientists). Minor premise: The Galápagos islands are volcanic habitats with diverse ecosystems. Conclusion: Millions of years are not necessarily required to explain the Galápagos ecosystems.”

Bob Enyart’s “List of Not-So-Old Things” quotes surprised scientists looking at the rapid geological and ecological changes on Surtsey:

* Surtsey Island, Iceland: Of the volcanic island that formed in 1963, New Scientist reported in 2007 about Surtsey that “geographers… marvel that canyons, gullies and other land features that typically take tens of thousands or millions of years to form were created in less than a decade.” Yes. And Iceland’s official geologist wrote in the months after Surtsey formed, “that the time scale,” he had been trained “to attach to geological developments is misleading.” For what is said to “take thousands of years… the same development may take a few weeks or even days here,” including to form “a landscape… so varied and mature that it was almost beyond belief” with “wide sandy beaches and precipitous crags… gravel banks and lagoons, impressive cliffs… hollows, glens and soft undulating land… fractures and faultscarps, channels and screes… confounded by what met your eye… boulders worn by the surf, some of which were almost round…”


  • Donald Holliday says:

    An individual you often cite here from his articles, Fred Pearce, wrote a wonderful article back in August 2013 about the amazing transformation of a true desert island [Ascension Island] in which there were no streams, springs and little if any rainfall. Lichens, mosses, ferns and perhaps a few tiny flowers were all that existed originally. [in other words biological soil crusts] Yet, there was a major transformation of that Desert Island into a cloud forest of subtropical plants, etc. Why ? Some plants were planted on the volcanic slopes and others escaped from gardens of British Sailors. All water had to be shipped in. In any event, the cloud forest harvests water from fog mist and does create cloud formation with passing moisture from off the Atlantic.

    Fred Pearce was demonized by every left wing ideologue for his post. Kieran Sucking of the Center of Biological Diversity was one of these along with two dissenting articles written by Daniel Simberloff and Donald Strong. Also the comments section was loaded with dumb religiously driven comments, especially by many against the plants being invasive non-natives which would destroy rare mosses and ferns. Hardly, I have written and been in communication with Stedson Stroud the Conservation officer and he supports everything Fred Pearce says about the debased attitude of these ideologues who believe that if evolution wanted plants there, then evolution would have done so gradually. No one is terribly interested in studying the mechanisms by which these plants create clouds and hence tap into moisture off the ocean from fog and enhancing cloud formation for rainfall. In an era of climate change and drought, you’s think these climate researchers would be flooding this island to study the mechanisms, where practical application could be made to restore other parts of the Earth for enhancing rainfall. But no, the religion trumps the reality and science.

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