Remote satellite sensing has confirmed one of Australia’s two active volcanoes is erupting on McDonald Island in the Southern Ocean.

Satellite images have detected the volcanic activity on the island, 4,100 km southwest of Western Australia.

Australian Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, said that for 75,000 years the McDonald Island volcano had lain dormant before erupting for the first time in 1992.

He said there had been several eruptions since, the last in 2001 – detected by satellite that indicated a doubling in the island’s size from 1.13 square km to 2.45 square km. The latest activity was the most recent since that event.

Unveiling satellite images of the eruption today at the opening of the annual Australian Antarctic Division exhibition at Parliament House, Senator Campbell said few Australians realised there were active volcanoes within our territorial waters.

“The McDonald Island volcano also is unusual because unlike most oceanic volcanoes, it sits on a shallow submarine plateau, which means its eruptions are not as wild and fiery as some – instead producing a slow-moving mass of lava that seeps and spreads.

“Despite the slow-moving nature of the lava, eruptions over the past 13 years have caused startling changes to the island’s geography, obliterating some landmarks and creating new ones.

“While people tend to think of volcanoes as destructive, this remarkable natural phenomenon is also productive, creating new land that will make the island more attractive to seabirds, particularly the king penguin.”

McDonald Island is home to seals, macaroni penguins and other seabirds. The king penguin was first spotted there in 2002 and with the new beaches now probably containing gravel-like pieces of pumice as a result of volcanic activity, further colonisation by the magnificent bird is likely.

McDonald Island is within the Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI) Marine Reserve, one of the world’s biggest marine reserves. It is just 44 km from Australia’s only other active volcano on Heard Island where there has not been any activity for some time. Both islands are World Heritage listed.

“Although these two islands are close to each other, we know almost nothing of McDonald Island because its uninviting terrain and surrounding hazardous seas make it virtually impossible to get ashore,” Senator Campbell said.

“The satellite images of the island’s volcano provide a fascinating snapshot of the power of nature.”

The exhibition opening also marked the release of the latest round of Australian Antarctic Science Grants, an allocation of $740,000 for 47 research projects, and the announcement of eight new Antarctic place names.

The new place names were approved following nominations from interested parties. The approved names are: Adamson Spur, Prismatine Peak, Hidden Lake, Hanging Lake, Lake Henderson, Patterned Lake, Jacka Valley and Cemetery Ridge.

The names were chosen as suitably descriptive and appropriate for the features they describe, with the personal name for Adamson Spur selected in recognition of the pioneering work in the area by the late Emeritus Professor Don Adamson.

Full details of the successful research projects are available: 2005/06 AAS Grants PDF