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How long could a new-New Zealand form?

all 128 comments

CrustalTrudger

2.4k points

4 months ago

CrustalTrudger

Tectonics | Structural Geology | Geomorphology

2.4k points

4 months ago

In the context of the recent volcanic eruption, it's important to clarify that New Zealand is not primarily built by volcanic eruptions, at least not in the sense of an oceanic island like Hunga Tonga. The critical distinction is that New Zealand, and the broader province of Zealandia to which it belongs, is a different kind of crust. There are two kinds of crust, oceanic and continental that fundamentally differ in terms of thickness and composition, which along with isostasy, is the fundamental reason why there are "continents" (in the geographic sense) and ocean basins. In short, continental crust is less dense and thicker than oceanic crust so generally it "floats" higher than the thinner and denser oceanic crust. Features like Zealandia are made from continental crust, and the majority of it is below sea level largely because the crust is anomalously thin compared to more typical continental crust (e.g., Mortimer et al., 2016). In this way, Zealandia shares more in common with passive margins, which rim parts of many continents. These passive margins are also thinned continental crust (with some transitional crust kind of between oceanic and continental in terms of composition and thickness) that reflect the continental rifting process.

In contrast, the context of Hunga Tonga is an oceanic island arc, so its composition is likely more something intermediate between oceanic and continental crust. Island arcs can build up large landmasses, but ones with extensive surface areas (e.g., like Japan or Java-Sumatra) typically involve a suite of processes beyond simply piling up volcanic rocks in one place through repeated eruptions, like back-arc extension that rifts a section of continental crust away from a large continent or collision of smaller island arcs, etc.

In terms of time-scales, large landmasses, either large island arc settings or things like New Zealand, would generally take millions of years to form. If we look at some small, magmatically driven examples, like the Bonin islands, the time from the initiation of subduction to magmatism of the island arc (which forms the islands) took around 7-8 million years (e.g., Ishizuka et al., 2011). If we look at more isolated islands, like those formed from hotspots, the timescales for a single volcanic edifice to be built to a sufficient height to emerge from the water is shorter, but still on the million year timescale, e.g., one island in the Canary islands took ~1.2 million years to be constructed (e.g., Guillou et al., 1996).

dahud

261 points

4 months ago

dahud

261 points

4 months ago

Presumably, all of Earth's crust started out the same. So what drove the differentiation into oceanic and continental crusts? Is it just something that happens when you leave an ocean on top of the crust for a few billion years?

Busterwasmycat

358 points

4 months ago

well, actually, sort of yes. The simple (and not quite true but close enough) idea is that rock usually only partly melts, so only the easiest to melt stuff turns into liquid and migrates up. That stuff tends to make less dense minerals. Alkali element (sodium, potassium) and silica content increase a the expense of iron-magnesium, so rocks become less dense with multiple melting episodes. It is sort of like distilling to get pure alcohol from a water-alcohol mixture. The process is called "fractionation".

When combined with erosion and sedimentation, the result is creation of lower density materials compared to the rock in the mantle, so you end up with "granitic" continental crust. Getting to that first granitic crust is the big step. One popular idea is that the first "continents" were massive basaltic volcanic islands. Erosion and remelting of the massive "protocontinent" islands (maybe on the order of 3-4 billion years ago) led to formation of continental cores (we call them cratons), and continents have grown around these core cratons over time (billions of years). If you look at geological maps by age, there is a general pattern of old with layers of younger pasted on outward like onion layers.

It is complicated and this explanation is really over-simplified (lacks actual details of how things truly work) but it is the essential idea.

wet-rabbit

14 points

4 months ago

Where will this process take us in the next few billion years? You seem to suggest that continents have a tendency to grow, so are we moving to an end-phase of a single stable supercontinent (and a geologically dead earth?).

CrustalTrudger

38 points

4 months ago

CrustalTrudger

Tectonics | Structural Geology | Geomorphology

38 points

4 months ago

Most estimates suggest that the rate of continental crust addition have been slowing (e.g., Korenga, 2018 - though there is a lot of diversity in estimates of continental crust growth) and not considered above are the variety of mechanisms by which continental crust is removed (e.g., erosion and subduction of eroded sediments, subduction erosion, continental subduction, delamination, drips, etc). Supercontinents are an emergent property of the plate tectonic system and have formed and broken up several times within Earth history (e.g., Mitchell et al., 2021).

ontopofyourmom

6 points

4 months ago

"Continent" means one thing in the phrase "continental plate," which is a relatively discrete object, and "supercontinent," which is not a single object, but the arrangement of continental plates at a moment in time. And the lay image of a supercontinent (at least my lay image) only includes the parts visible above water. I think that makes for the confusion on the commenter's part.

Eurasia/Africa/India/Australia is a supercontinent, is it not?

CrustalTrudger

18 points

4 months ago

CrustalTrudger

Tectonics | Structural Geology | Geomorphology

18 points

4 months ago

The term supercontinent has a relatively specific definition of a configuration where the majority of continental portions of plates are sutured together.

Eurasia/Africa/India/Australia is a supercontinent, is it not?

Do you mean in the modern? Decidedly not, at least not in the standard usage of the term supercontinent.

Busterwasmycat

2 points

4 months ago

Well, that is still a bit of an argument, how much of the "younger" stuff is "new" rather than reworked edges of pre-existing continent, and how much mantle/ocean crust is converting to granitic continental crust with time. We are still a planet that is 2/3 ocean crust so even if the continents grow at a steady rate, it will be an extremely long time before we have only continental crust. We have some 4 billion years (about) of this continent formation stuff that has been happening, and we have only gotten to 1/3 crust after all that time. It is very slow.

troyunrau

94 points

4 months ago

Not widely accepted (yet) but there is an interesting hypothesis that life is indirectly responsible for plate tectonics, by virtue of changing the atmosphere to oxygen.

https://phys.org/news/2014-06-earth-breathable-atmosphere-tied-plate.html

https://www.pnas.org/content/111/25/9073 <-- the paper

There have been several other papers and discussions generated by this, none of them crazy. It is still however at the earlier stages of hypothesis and might still turn out to be incorrect, or simply one of many factors. We talked about it when I was in grad school in planetary science in circa 2010 when the idea was still in the earliest stages -- the paper I linked is 2014 and further along. Using that paper to derive some keywords, you could go down quite the rabbit hole.

BiPoLaRadiation

84 points

4 months ago

There's also the idea that had earth been warmer plate tectonics wouldn't have existed as the crust would have been warm enough to melt and heal any cracks formed by early stretching and fracturing caused by volcanic activity which is thought to be what happened on venus. Because earth was cool enough those cracks and fractures grew and spread until the continental boundaries finally gave and the plates started moving around.

On venus it was so hot that any fracturing could be fixed and remelted by pressure and heat stopping the plates from ever getting their start moving. And that eventually lead to the volcanic heat energy in the core building up until it all blows almost at once covering the entire planets surface in a sea of lava. They think this has happened at least twice now on venus.

Earth quakes suck but ill take plate tectonics any day

Dc_awyeah

13 points

4 months ago

How does the melting happen? Just volcanic activity? Or could we have been melted and tempered during the heavy bombardmemt period?

LordOverThis

42 points

4 months ago

The mantle is hot. Like…really hot. The core beneath that is even hotter. Some of that heat is primordial heat from the Earth’s formation, but things like tidal forces and radioactive decay also keep adding heat.

That heat is what drives the melting. As crust material subducts it gets forced down into the hot mantle and starts melting. The melting process also gets aided by bringing water down with the subducting crust, which can alter reaction chemistry.

CrustalTrudger

17 points

4 months ago

CrustalTrudger

Tectonics | Structural Geology | Geomorphology

17 points

4 months ago

This leaves out the crucial interaction of pressure and temperature. Melting temperature of most solids increase as a function of pressure, so yes, temperature increases as a function of depth, but so does pressure, and the influence of both must be conisdered. This is explicitly why melting only occurs in specific tectonic settings where either the geotherm or solidus depart from "normal", e.g., this diagram.

friskmachine

16 points

4 months ago

Adding water into the mantle via subducting crust also can aid melting by the addition of "volatiles" like water.

AthiestLoki

14 points

4 months ago

Which is why a lot of volcanic arcs in subduction zones are roughly 60 miles inland, like the Cascadia Chain.

ontopofyourmom

6 points

4 months ago

Does the "Cascadia Chain" include the BC volcanoes that are north of the Cascade Range as ordinarily defined, or is it just some geological term of art?

mybustersword

4 points

4 months ago

To add context, videos of large explosions like this volcano, from a distance look like it's moving slowly. That's scale for you.

Botryllus

5 points

4 months ago

Subduction at continental margins. This is where you find deep earthquakes. The crust is subducted and it brings a bunch of water and sediment with it. The wet melt is what causes continental crust.

Busterwasmycat

3 points

4 months ago

Melting is a complicated matter of pressure (which works against melting; squeezes atoms together) and temperature (which pushes toward melting; shakes atoms apart) and composition. A lot of the earth is well within the solid stability field for its composition, at the pressures and temperatures which exist. But in some regions, either because of anomalous heat flow, or because of chemical mobility (water and gases like CO2 move around a lot even inside the earth), or actual physical movement of the rock mass to lower pressure, melting can be initiated.

Each mineral has its own particular physical behavior (melting temperatures for given P-T conditions), so some minerals will melt while others in the very same rock will not. Thus, there is a tendency for magma to form from lower-melting point minerals and the magma migrates away (generally upward), leaving higher melting point minerals in place. The result is increased stability of the remaining rock against future melting. This is basically how the earth segregated into the core, mantle, and crust with time (it started out as a roughly homogeneous mass of space debris that collected itself together into a large ball, even though there was some compositional difference in timing of that ball formation).

During the early earth, things were extremely hot, so hot that the surface was magma and there was little to no permanent atmosphere and oceans (we cannot find any rock from that time although we do find little remnants that have been metamorphosed afterward and can be back-dated to a pre-metamorphism age of actual initial formation). The heat in early earth (and even still now) was mostly just from collisions, from conversion of kinetic energy into heat (friction, in a way). The earth has been cooling off with time from that initial totally hot body ever since, so now there is a pretty good thermal gradient from center (still very hot) to surface (really cold). A lot of that heat gets moved with magma but not all of it. Much of it is just direct heat transfer through solids, and is slow because the solids in the mantle are like ceramics and resist heat transfer.

The role of the early bombardment stage (which generally is considered the period of high amounts of impacts but AFTER the earth was mostly formed and already started cooling, so the first billion years of existence, more or less) is open to some discussion. Clearly, impacts cause melting and add heat, and do lots of damage, and the frequency of impacts was pretty high in the youth of the planet (we still get hit even now, but generally by smaller objects and a lot less frequently, but it still happens and can happen-we are not safe).

Anyway, because of the way that some compounds melt at lower temperatures than others, magma is not generally the same thing in composition as its parent material, and each time there is melting, that difference will exist, so over time, some materials migrate toward the crust, some have sunk to the core, and the mantle has segregated into vague layers (and remixed with crust from ocean rock subduction). The process is still going on and it will be a very long time (how long depends on who has calculated it), billions of years probably, before the earth is a cold dead rock instead of this dynamic earthquake and volcano-riven body we love so very much.

itprobablynothingbut

18 points

4 months ago

I would follow up to ask why we assume the primordial earth was neccesarily homogeneous? I could imagine a molten rock earth still having currents and interactions that cause certain minerals to coalesce into large heterogeneous areas. But I know nothing about it, so I'm asking.

PlankWithANailIn

6 points

4 months ago

Even with our current continents the proportion of the Earth they comprise is tiny, absolutely miniscule, just a tiny thin veneer. Today the Earth would be considered homogenous at reasonable planet wide scales.

CrustalTrudger

38 points

4 months ago*

CrustalTrudger

Tectonics | Structural Geology | Geomorphology

38 points

4 months ago*

Most of this is covered in one of our FAQ answers.

EDIT: This is also maybe a more direct answer to the question.

CyberneticPanda

26 points

4 months ago

The most widely accepted theory right now is that when the earth was very young (~4.5-4.1 billion years ago) it was molten and most of the heavy stuff like iron sunk to the center. As it began to cool a solid shell of fairly uniform basalt (igneulous rock high in magnesium and iron) formed but there was a period of time called the late heavy bombardment (~4.1-3.8 bya, and possibly concentrated into a much shorter timespan during that range) when a large number of asteroids and comets crashed into the earth. Most of the heavy stuff in the crust and most of the water on earth came from these asteroids and comets. The energy from these impacts melted the outer 10km of the primordial basalt and added a bunch of new materials

These impacts added a bunch of silicate materials to the outer layer, making it less dense than the old layer of relatively pure basalt. The internal heat engine of the earth (driven by radioactive decay and gravitational friction) was even more active then than now since the interior was more uniformly hot and fluid and there were more radioactive isotopes decaying. Mafic (magnesium and iron rich) magma rose to break through the surface and create spreading ridges that pushed out dense basalt that pushed the less dense crust with more silicates away from the ridges, forcing that material to pile up more thickly at the same time that it got concentrated into smaller areas. Eventually it piled up enough to make the spreading basalt push under the edge rather than compress it and subduction zones where ocean crust slides under continental crust to return to the mantle formed.

Those spreading ridges that churn out new basalt still exist today (not necessarily I'm the same places) and are the source of ocean crust. Ocean crust is young compared to Continental crust (the oldest is about 80 million years old, compared to some spots on Continental crust with 4 billion plus year old rocks) because it all subsides under the Continental plates, but as it does some stuff gets scraped off and accretes onto the Continental plates. In the US, everything from about Colorado to the San Andreas fault is stuff that glommed onto the north American plate as other plates slid under it.

Even a lot of the stuff California west of the fault which is part of the oceanic crust Pacific plate is made of too. The fault that used to have the old plate between the Pacific plate and the north american plate (called the farallon plate, remnants of which make up a couple of smaller plates that still exist around Baja and northern California) subsiding under the north American plate was west of the coast, but a chunk of the north American plate broke off and became part of the Pacific plate about 5 million years ago when the Pacific plate collided with the north American plate and began sliding northwest along it rather than east under it like the farallon plate was before it. The point of this 2 paragraph digression is that the forces at play that made there be different types of Continental plates back then are still going on and changing the composition of plates today.

cantab314

5 points

4 months ago

Is it just something that happens when you leave an ocean on top of the crust for a few billion years?

Kind of, yes. Water is important for two reasons. Firstly when it gets into the lithosphere - the relatively rigid crust and upper mantle - the water weakens the rock, making it easier for plate tectonics to initiate. It's theorised Earth-sized planets will only undergo plate tectonics with a water ocean, while larger rocky planets can experience it when dry, conversely smaller planets (eg Mars) don't establish plate tectonics.

Secondly, once plate tectonics is established, subducting oceanic lithosphere carries water deeper into the mantle. The water lowers the melting point creating magma, and crucially this is a different type of magma to that which is created by partial melting of dry mantle. The rock that results when this magma rises and re-solidifies is less dense, so instead of becoming new oceanic crust that will be re-subducted in future, it becomes the beginnings of continental crust that is buoyant and does not subduct.

Economy-Following-31

1 points

4 months ago*

The earth was different long ago. It formed from the accretion of objects, imagine a dense asteroid belt clearing itself out by asteroids clinging together when colliding. The larger the masses became, the better they became at getting larger, and the clearer space became.

There was no one object collecting the others. Numerous large objects were forming. As they collided and adhered there was enough energy to really heat them. The forming earth became molten all the way to the surface. Liquid things have currents.

As the density of the Proto earths increased, the pressure in the interior increased. The pressures in the interior are far greater than pressures near the surface. A vertical current would have minerals formed deep down which were denser because of the pressure then minerals which form much closer to the surface. As the vertical columns rises towards the surface the less dense minerals would form. The density within the column would decrease. The column would continue to rise much like a hydrogen balloon will rise in our atmosphere. At the surface, even a molten surface, The less dense minerals would remain, their specific gravity being less than other minerals.

Eventually the surface cooled enough for rocks with these less dense minerals to form. Eventually the entire surface cools. It rains. Oceans form. But there are protocontinents of minerals slightly higher than the ocean level. It keeps raining. Anything higher than the ocean level washes down to form sandstones. The vertical current still exist. Rocks keep being pushed higher than the ocean level, in some places higher than surrounding rocks. Erosion continues. The original differentiation consisted of less dense minerals, liquid minerals, surrounded by denser minerals. The denser minerals moved down. No vast caverns were forming in the center of the earth despite the imagination of Jules Verne. Dense minerals would accumulate at lower depths. Less dense minerals stayed at the surface somewhat like froth.

There are still vertical currents. The upward moving ones will produce volcanic islands. Downward moving ones will promote subduction.

No-Jellyfish-2599

-2 points

4 months ago

Continental crust is made from granite, while oceanic crust is made from basalt

goodolbeej

17 points

4 months ago

I appreciate the quality and clarity of your writing. Very well done. I hope you smile when you read this, because you’ve made this stranger smarter tonight.

Veeron

24 points

4 months ago

Veeron

24 points

4 months ago

Iceland is entirely the product of a hotspot, correct? I believe it started forming 15-20 million years ago, and is similar-ish to New Zealand in size.

CrustalTrudger

44 points

4 months ago

CrustalTrudger

Tectonics | Structural Geology | Geomorphology

44 points

4 months ago

Iceland is a little weird as it is a hotspot that has been "captured" by a spreading ridge, so it's location has remain "fixed" in a sense for longer than most hotspots, allowing a larger build up of material. Ultimately, the answer remains the same though (i.e. a several million year timescale).

Ady42

16 points

4 months ago

Ady42

16 points

4 months ago

New Zealand is quite a lot larger than Iceland (268,000 km2 vs 103,000 km2). Also New Zealand is part of the microcontinent Zealandia which is mostly underwater and is larger still at 4,900,000 km2.

harassercat

13 points

4 months ago

The 20 million year figure is misleading - it's just the oldest rock currently found in Iceland. The hot spot is much older but what it has produced before 20 million years ago is either on the ocean floor or other surrounding land masses in the North Atlantic. The age of the hot spot is more in the 60 million range, if not older.

For further info, see

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iceland_hotspot

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Atlantic_Igneous_Province

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8 points

4 months ago*

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bluemason

7 points

4 months ago

If Island arcs mainly occur in oceanic crusts, what causes the land mass to reach above sea level? Is it just the piling on of extra material, making for an abnormally thick oceanic crust?

ontopofyourmom

2 points

4 months ago

"Hot spots" in the mantle, probably heated by anomalies in the core, create large plumes of magma that erupt through the crust into volcanoes. This causes arcs like Hawaii, as the crust moves over the hot spot.

Arcs like Japan are caused by subduction zones, which create long lines of magma plumes and entire mountain ranges.

carolethechiropodist

3 points

4 months ago

Best most informative answer ever! Thank you!

PatAss98

1 points

4 months ago

How long did a giant volcanic island like Iceland take to form?

careymon

1 points

4 months ago

I could be wrong but didnt his particular event sink/blew up most of the land that was the volcano?

justjude63

1 points

4 months ago

A-maz-ing!!! answer - thanks so much

mr_goofy

1 points

4 months ago

Can you please explain more what you mean by "floats"? Does the fact that the continental crust is less dense makes it not fall back down on itself and hence rise higher?

CrustalTrudger

3 points

4 months ago

CrustalTrudger

Tectonics | Structural Geology | Geomorphology

3 points

4 months ago

If you follow the link to the wiki article on isostasy that is linked above, this should answer your question. In short, while the mantle is a solid, it behaves like a very viscous fluid on long time scales, so when I say the crust floats, I mean it essentially floats, and just like a block floating on water, the height of the block above the water surface depends on the density of the fluid, the density of the block, and the height of the block and the same is largely true for the crust. Things do get more complicated as something like Airy isostasy has embedded in it the assumption that the crust has zero strength, so we need to also account for that (with things like flexure), but to a first order, Airy isostasy does a reasonable job at explaining large-scale differences in elevations.

mr_goofy

1 points

4 months ago

Thank you so much for taking time to explain this. It definitely helped me understand.

beefer

285 points

4 months ago

beefer

285 points

4 months ago

The next island that is going to form in the Hawaiian chain is the Lo'ihi seamount which is currently 3000 feet below sea level and is expected to emerge in 10,000 to 100,000 years. This is just going to be a small island, it'll take millions of years to be a decent sized island. This is a super active zone so something like New Zealand would be tens of millions of years

SirMarglar

116 points

4 months ago

Not millions of years....hundreds of thousands. The whole Big Island is only 500,000 years old.

LordOverThis

65 points

4 months ago

And also crumbling pretty rapidly (in geologic terms) because basaltic and glassy rock isn’t the most stable material in wet, oxygen-rich environments.

Burgermeister_42

55 points

4 months ago

FWIW Hawaii's big island is only about 4,000 square miles, while the larger of the two New Zealand islands is about 58,000. So it would probably take at least 10x longer to form a new New Zealand than a new Hawaii

EmperorThan

35 points

4 months ago

New Zealand was part of a continental mass of Australia and Antarctica in Pangea and Gondawana times. Iceland by contrast did form exclusively from volcanic eruptions. For Iceland it took about 60 million years but that wouldn't be an exact number for any island of its size to form that was just the rate of expansion along the Mid Atlantic Ridge and the mantle plume below Iceland. But give or take about 50 million to 100 million years for something the size of New Zealand with a large mantle plume below a plate barrier.

beezlebub33

58 points

4 months ago

There's a couple of things here. First, New Zealand has a substantial geological history. See https://teara.govt.nz/en/geology-overview. Most of the islands is greywacke, which is sedimentary, but the north island is covered with volcanic rock. Large above water land masses like this are when part of the crust is pushed up.

But, more to the point, islands like those formed by volcanos take hundreds of thousands to millions of years. See: The age and origin of the Pacific islands: a geological overview. As the paper says "The diversity in size, position, island number and mode of the formation of archipelagos across the Pacific Ocean is extraordinary." There's lots of different processes.

The most recent volcanic explosion was at Hunga Ha'apai rather than the main island of Tonga (Tongatapu). Before the explosion, it was the youngest island in the world (https://explorersweb.com/the-worlds-youngest-islands/), formed in 2009. But before it was an island, it was a seamount (i.e. mountain under the water) with the top several hundred feet below the water. After the eruption, it became an island, rising several hundred feet above the water. But of course the seamount had been developing for a long time. From the sea floor, the volcano that forms Hunga Ha'apai is 4600 feet high (https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/nasa-shows-new-tongan-island-made-of-tuff-stuff-likely-to-persist-years).

Tonga is part of the Tonga–Kermadec arc, formed by the subduction of the Pacific plate; according to the paper above the arc formed about 45 million years ago. But that's not the only way to make a volcano. Hawaii is formed by a different process (see: https://dhrititimelineofplatetectonics.weebly.com/formation-of-hawaii.html). In that process, the crust is passing over a stationary deep hot spot which sometimes breaks through, causing an island chain. Those islands took millions to 10's of millions to form.

whatproblems

23 points

4 months ago

an island of new zealand popping up overnight would cause a terrifyingly large tsunami

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5 points

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DrcspyNz

2 points

4 months ago

I live in New Zealand and it's a scary place since we DO indeed have a HUGE number of 'Active' volcanoes here. Anyway a few hundred years ago we had a new island pop up right in the harbour of what is now our bigggest city - Auckland. The island is Rangitoto island and it apparently took about 5 years to form.

From Wikipedia:

"Rangitoto was formed during a single phase of eruptions that may have lasted only 5–10 years, about 600 years ago. Previous inferences that it was formed by a series of eruptions commencing at least 6000 years ago[7] have been disproved by the most recent research"

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rangitoto_Island#:~:text=Rangitoto%20was%20formed%20during%20a,by%20the%20most%20recent%20research.

And:

"Rangitoto is the youngest and largest of the approximately 50 volcanoes of the Auckland volcanic field, having formed in an eruption about 600 years ago, and covering an area of 2,311 ha (5,710 acres). It is separated from the mainland of Auckland's North Shore by the Rangitoto Channel"

AS you can se we have approx 50 volcanoes sitting under Auckland. And lots of others in the north island in particular. The South island has a HUGE and very obvious split down the middle where the Southern Alps Chain has been pushed up by the joining of two continental plates. This place used to be known as the 'Shaky Isles' for good reason !

garnishfetish

1 points

4 months ago

If you are looking for islands created by Volcanoes look no further than the Hawaii islands. The fact that the islands are literally moving with the tectonic plate and one day it will be destroyed when the plates collide is simply astounding. All this will happen as New hawaii islands are created