Origins of a Tropical Island II: The Long Road from Lava to Colonization

Imagine a tropic island paradise with beautiful beaches and thousands of plants and birds. Chances are you are imagining an island that formed as the result of volcanic activity. Examples would include the Caribbean islands, the Polynesian islands, and the Hawaiian Islands. But imagine what those islands looked like when they first formed. Rather than a tropic paradise you should be envisioning a barren rocky landscape devoid of all life.

You don’t need to imagine such a place. Just look at the newly re-landscaped island of Nishino-shima! (see my previous article for more on this island: Origins of a Tropical Island: Instant Paradise or a Long Chaotic Process?) This island has been completely covered with fresh volcanic material. Or check out, below, the newest member of  Tonga islands in the south pacific.

The post-eruption satellite view after the island on the left became joined to the crater which created a larger land mass (Pleiades © CNES 2015)
The post-eruption satellite view of the new volcanic island near Tonga (north of New Zealand) in March of 2015 (Pleiades Satellite images © CNES 2015)

Only a year ago the island Nishino-shima was partially covered by vegetation, had nesting birds, and hosted a number of insect species. All of that is gone now. When the current volcanic activity ceases the process of repopulating the island with living things will begin anew.

How long will it take for life to return to the island? And what might that timetable have to say about the claims of creationists about the age of the islands and their biota? Lets take a look.

This little island of Nishino-shima can teach us a few things that can help answer those questions. This is due, in part, to the labors of several people that have recorded events on this island for over 40 years. The catastrophic re-landscaping we are witnessing today isn’t the first time that the island has seen a complete make-over. In 1973, a passing ship noticed volcanic activity on the island. Over the next year the island was completely transformed by volcanism destroying most of the vegetation that it had prior to that point. Since that time, scientists have visited the island periodically taking surveys of the plants and animals that they found. The most recent comprehensive survey was done in 2004, 31 years after the last volcanic eruption has subsided.

What that survey found is quite remarkable.   While vegetation covered a good portion of the inner island that vegetation consisted of only six species of flowering plants.   Four of those species were likely blown there by the wind and two of them probably hitched a ride on the feathers of migrating birds. Some flies and arthropods also made it there but no bees and no vertebrate animals other than a few species of birds.   So after 31 years only a small number of living things had managed to make it to this island and make it their home. It is even possible that some plants survived the 1973 eruption. If true, the migration rate to this island might be less than one plant species per decade!

In many ways this is not surprising. A home of volcanic rock is not much of a home. Before plants could live there some erosion has to take place to give the plants something to take root in. Even then only the most hearty of plants can handle such a difficult environment. Once established, decaying plant material would enhance the soil with organic elements and provide a progressively better home over time allowing other plants to migrate to the island successfully. With plants come pollinators and other insects that can use those plants for food and shelter. These in turn help the plants to be more successful.

One thing is certain: the whole process takes time and in some cases lots of it!

Also consider that unlike Mt. St Helens where plants have returned quite quickly to the ash covered hills, volcanic islands are separate from other locations where plants reside by long distances. So every plant on a new volcanic island must find a way to get to the island. The influx of new seeds and organic material will be far less on an island than it would be around a volcano on the mainland.

The small island of Nishino-shima is part of a region of islands called the Ogasawara Group. Those islands are all small but some are inhabited by humans. A study of those island has found 441 species of plants that are native (eg. lived on the islands before man arrived bringing exotic plants and animals) along with thousands of species of insects and spiders.   Some of these islands are within 30 miles of the Nishimo-shima and yet 31 years later only a tiny fraction of these plants on neighboring islands have come to live on this island.

In 1969, four years before the 1973 volcanic outbreak, there were reports of just four species of plants. In 1950 there were reports of smoke coming from the island and so it is possible that the islands flora has been wiped out at that time and only four species had managed to make it back by 1969. While it may be possible that not every plant was killed in 1973, that doesn’t look to be the case in 2015.   Going forward we are going to get to watch a natural experiment in colonization of a barren island. At this point I would predict that it will take decades for even a few plants are able to gain a foothold on the island assuming that volcanic activity ceases in the near future.

The new volcano (black material) is taking over the old island (green and yellow portion of the island).
The new volcano (black material) is taking over the old island (green and yellow portion of the island).

The Creationists’ Colonization Plan

The other islands of this group south of Japan are also volcanic in origin. But many of them are covered by dense vegetation with hundreds of species of plants and thousands of species of insects many of which are endemic to these islands which means these islands are the only place on Earth that they are found. Each of these islands was at one time very similar to the island of Nishino-shima. They were barren wastelands of volcanic rock. How did they come to be covered by such a diverse and lush vegetation? Clearly the plants had to migrate to the islands. But from where? The closest large landmass of Japan more than 600 miles away.

If it has taken 31 years for 6 species of plants to gain a foot hold on one island despite the presence of islands with plants within 30 miles of its shores then imagine the difficulty of accumulating hundreds of species of plants from the mainland more than 600 miles away. Each plant that lives on these islands had to arrive via the wind or be carried on a bird’s feather or foot. These are chance events and even the safe arrival of a seed does not guarantee its success in establishing a new population.

For young earth creationists all of these islands are less than 4500 years old having formed after a global flood catastrophe. The entire volcano underlying the island which accounts for thousands of feet of volcanic material had to have formed after the Flood since no Flood sedimentary deposits are found on the flanks of the mountains either above or below sea level. So the volcanoes had to build massive mountains that eventually reached above sea level. Then the volcanoes had to cease their activity and all the plants and animals had to migrate to these islands. And all of this had to happen within the last 4500 years.   And really, this all had to happen within just a few hundred years since some of these islands have been inhabited by man for several thousand years and man would only have been attracted to the island if they were completely vegetated.

The direct observation of colonization rates on this little island tells us that such a young earth hypotheses is simply wishful thinking. It will take thousands of years for each new island to develop a diverse ecology and that can only happen without continued volcanic activity resetting the development clock back to the beginning. And what about the first island in this area? It had to develop its flora by immigrants from more than 600 miles away. The rate of colonization from that distance would be many times lower than what we are observing today.

The geological evolution of the volcanic islands we are witnessing today appears to be a recapitulation of the history of all of the islands of the Ogasawara Group. They didn’t simply grow into fully formed islands all at once but developed over time through thousands of iterations of volcanic activity and stasis. The islands are built through successive stages and the vegetation on them only reflects the time since their last building stage.

These small pacific islands are a testimony to a long history of volcanic development and colonization. Creationists must assume and assert massive differences in rates of both volcanic activity and colonization in the past to even begin to explain the features of these islands in the present day.

The creationists’ explanation of tropical islands becomes even more difficult when larger islands like the Hawaiian Islands are considered. These islands are covered by thousands of unique species of plants and 10s of thousands of native insects. In the case of the Hawaiian Islands, they are more than 1500 miles from the nearest landmass and so colonization of these islands would require even greater amounts of time.

When we continue our examination of the origins of tropical islands we will take a close look at the development of the Hawaiian Islands and their flora.

3 thoughts on “Origins of a Tropical Island II: The Long Road from Lava to Colonization

  1. What kind of mechanism would allow for larger animals to get somewhere like Hawaii? I ask because I’m wondering if the explanation is that some of these places species just evolved or whether they migrated somehow.


    1. I want to give away too much of my future posts:-) but on Hawaii there are no large animals that are native (ie. there before man arrived). There is only on native mammal that lives on the islands and its a bat. There is not a single native land amphibian or reptile on the Hawaiian Islands. The reason is pretty obvious, these animals had no way to migrate to these very remote islands. Islands that are closer by have rafting of animals on debris from Tsunamis or hurricanes but its really hard to survive that trip all the way to Hawaii.


Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: