A mass of floating pumice so large it’s being tracked via satellite is making its way to Australia, and with it a range of marine organisms including corals that could help restore the threatened Great Barrier Reef.
The giant sheet of rock — around 58 square miles — is the result of an underwater volcanic eruption near the Pacific archipelago of Tonga two weeks ago, Australia’s ABC News reports.
“We’re going to have millions of individual corals and lots of other organisms all coming in together with the potential of finding new homes along our coastline,” Queensland University of Technology geologist Associate Professor Scott Bryan said.
Barnacles, corals, crabs and snails are among the organisms Bryan said will hitch a ride on the pumice “raft” when it washes up along Australia’s coastline in less than a year. “[The raft] is a natural mechanism for species to colonize, restock and grow in a new environment,” he added.
The world’s largest coral reef, home to a variety of marine life, has come under the threat as a result of climate change in recent years. Warming temperatures have created a coral bleaching effect that causes the marine invertebrates to lose their color and eventually die.
According to a study published in April, baby coral in the 1,400-mile-long reef have declined by 89% due to mass bleaching in 2016 and 2017. Given the likelihood of more bleaching events as sea temperatures continue to increase, scientists are skeptical of recovery. Coral reefs play a key role in marine ecosystems, providing a habitat for fish and serving as protection against storms and extreme weather events.
The “raft” phenomenon is not new. A giant floating island of pumice was similarly created in 2006 when an underwater eruption, also in Tonga, led to upwards of 80 different species of marine life finding a home on the drifting rock, and again in 2012 when a previously dormant volcano in the Pacific erupted over two days.