Japan Eagerly Watches as a Brand New Island Forms

Japan is famous for its seismic activity, including numerous volcanoes scattered along the island nation, but sometimes those volcanoes get a bit more rambunctious than usual. South of Tokyo in the Ogasawara Islands, one such volcano is explosively giving birth to a new island, marking the first time a new volcanic island has emerged in Japan since the 1970s. Such events are always momentous and eagerly watched by geologists, but this one has a special significance, because the new island could help Japan expand its territorial waters, and this makes it of particular political interest.

This new island emerged in the early hours of Wednesday, and as of now, the smoking cone is still quite small. Time will tell if the island manages to establish itself or if it slips back beneath the waves, a common event with new volcanic formations; the seismic and volcanic activity can create shifting ground that leads to subsidence later. For this reason, Japan is holding off on naming the island and making any formal political moves, in case it’s a transient visitor. If the island does remain and it manages to resist erosion, it represents a substantial political opportunity, thanks to some special terms in the United Nations Law of the Sea.

The Law of the Sea, established to firm up international conventions on territorial waters, states that a zone encompassing 12 nautical miles out from any island or land formation belongs exclusively to the host nation. Not only that, but Japan would be able to claim a zone of up to 200 nautical miles as an exclusive economic zone, giving it first right to explore resources in the region around the new island and conduct trade. While Japan’s territorial waters and economic zone wouldn’t expand radically, because the new island is relatively close to existing shores, they would definitely grow.

For Japan, that’s good news. Like many island nations, Japan relies heavily on its waters as a source of revenues, and the ability to control ship traffic and natural resources in these waters is an important part of the Japanese economy. The Japanese Coast Guard and other authorities are monitoring the volcano’s activity, which fortunately is occurring far from inhabited areas, and they’ll be keeping tabs on the island as it grows, or shrinks, so the government can determine what the next move should be.

Meanwhile, for those curious to know what it looks like to watch an island being born, there’s some impressive video illustrating exactly what happens when seawater meets volcanic eruptions: huge plumes of smoke, steam, ash and chunks of material carried up from deep within the Earth’s crust. The new land mass is extremely small and it might not be much to look at (and it certainly won’t be habitable), but it’s still amazing to marvel at how the Earth constantly changes and reforms itself, heedless of political boundaries and international conventions.