23 November, 2005

A rare volcanic eruption is expanding the size of an island in British Overseas Territory.  Spectacular new satellite images show that Montagu Island, an erupting volcano in the South Sandwich Islands, South Atlantic has grown by 50 acres (0.2 km2), equivalent to 40 football pitches in the last month.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) were alerted to satellite data showing a large and fast flowing lava flow that is pouring into the sea like a huge waterfall.

Dr John Smellie, a leading authority on volcanoes from BAS said,

‘Red hot lava has formed a molten river 90 metres wide that is moving fast, possibly several metres per second and extending the shoreline on the north side of the island.  This event is special because Montagu Island is mostly ice covered and it’s very rare that we get to make direct observations of eruptions under ice sheets’.

‘My work usually involves studying Antarctic rock formations to find out how past eruptions affected the growth and retreat of ice sheets over the last 30 million years.  This opportunity to monitor a live eruption and see how it affects ice cover is priceless’.

Dr Smellie plans to fly over the volcano in the New Year to get more close-up views for his research.  ‘It will be the highlight of my career’ he says.


Pictures: Satellite images of the erupting volcano, stills and broadcast quality footage of ice cliffs, scenery and wildlife are available from the BAS Press Office.

Dr Smellie’s work is part of the British Antarctic Survey Core Programme, Global Science in the Antarctic Context (GSAC), 2005-2010.  GSAC is comprised of eight research programmes.  Dr Smellie contributes to Greenhouse to Ice House – Evolution of the Antarctic Cryosphere and Palaeoenvironment (GEACEP).  GEACEP investigates the formation and stability of the permanent Antarctic ice sheet over its 20 million year history.  Results are used to check and improve the performance of computer models used for the prediction of climate change.

Researchers believed that volcanic activity on Montagu Island, which started in 2001, was winding down until they were alerted to the new satellite pictures showing the large, fast-moving lava flow.  It is the first eruption observed on the island.

The South Sandwich Islands are a volcanic arc.  Each of its eleven islands may erupt.  They are important to researchers because of their remoteness from any continental landmass making the lavas ‘pristine’ – unaffected by continental contamination.  This reveals how the Earth’s crust was formed and how it will evolve over time.  Large sections of the steep flanks of oceanic volcanoes commonly collapse causing tsunamis.

Studying erupting volcanoes by satellite, particularly those in remote regions, is also used in atmospheric research because the gases they release are Earth’s main natural source against which anthropogenic emissions can be compared.

The South Sandwich Islands are home to most (65%) of the world’s breeding population of chinstrap penguins.  Antarctic fur seals also breed there although neither species currently use Montagu Island because steep rock and ice cliffs surround it.  Several species of moss and soil invertebrates are unique to the area.

The South Sandwich Islands are approximately 14,500 km from the UK and 2000 km from mainland Antarctica.  Antarctica itself has only two obviously active volcanoes (Deception Island and Erebus) with another three or four dormant volcanoes that are still potentially active.

British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK’s national operator and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council.  It has an annual budget of around £40 million, runs eight research programmes and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.

The Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology is a multi-disciplinary institute engaging in advanced research, teaching, and service in cutting-edge oceanographic, atmospheric, geophysical, geological, and planetary sciences. It is part of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the Manoa (Honolulu) campus of the University of Hawaii.  The Institute is home to over 130 faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students with access to state-of-the-art laboratories and instrumentation. HIGP expertise spans the globe from pole to pole, from the depths of the seas to the tops of volcanoes and extends to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.  More information about HIGP can be found at: