8 New Islands Formed in the Last 20 Years

Two sand islands off the coast of Germany
Norderoogsand is a 34-acre sand island that emerged 15 miles off the coast of Germany in 2003. .

Ra Boe / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The bad news is that islands are constantly disappearing—for instance, the five Solomon Islands recently lost to rising sea levels—but the good news is that new islands are emerging to take their places all the time. Most are the result of underwater volcanic activity while some are caused by breakaway land or a buildup of silt or sand. While a few are only temporary—eroding quickly after materializing—many become permanent structures that receive names and become inhabited by plants, animals, and, eventually, people.

From the potentially ephemeral sand island off the coast of Germany to the ever-growing Japanese landmass that is Nishinoshima, here are eight new islands formed just in the past two decades (including one still in the embryonic stage).

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Hunga Tonga

Satellite imagery of new island surrounded by sea and clouds

O.V.E.R.V.I.E.W. / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

On December 19, 2014, an undersea volcano called Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai began erupting in the South Pacific island nation of Tonga for the second time in five years. It started with a white steam plume rising out of the ocean. Over the next few weeks, it intensified with ash plumes reaching 30,000 feet, followed by large rocks and thick ash spewing hundreds of feet into the air.

By January 16, 2015, a rocky new island had formed, measuring over a mile long and standing more than 300 feet above sea level. It quickly spread to join another nearby island, and the volcano crater in its center filled with sulfurous emerald water. Although the island is expected to erode within decades, it currently houses a sizable population of birds and is being studied by NASA as a model for volcanic shapes on Mars.

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Satellite imagery of Nishinoshima with crater near the middle

National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), created by Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, distributed by Geospatial Information Authority of Japan / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In November 2013, an underwater volcanic eruption near the Japanese island of Nishinoshima, which lies 620 miles south of Tokyo, created a nearby smaller island, initially called Niijima. By the end of the year, the tiny island had expanded and merged with Nishinoshima, which itself was formed by the same underwater volcano in the 1970s. The conjoined island—a new and bigger Nishinoshima—continued growing as lava flowed in all directions in oddly twisting lobes and tubes.

Since the first eruption in 1974, Nishinoshima has more than tripled in size (from a half square mile to 1.6 square miles). It's also become a sort of isolated sanctuary for flora and fauna, now deemed an Important Bird Area by the conservation group BirdLife International.

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Aerial view of sand island off the coast of Germany

Ra Boe / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In 2003, researchers noticed a small sandbank growing just off the German coast in the North Sea. In the decade that followed, it had emerged as a full-fledged, 34-acre island, already home to 50 different plant species and several types of birds, including grey geese and peregrine falcons. The fledgling island, called either Norderoogsand or Bird Island, is unusual because most sandbanks in the shallow North Sea coastal waters fail to survive the ferocious winter storms. While a superstorm could yet wipe away the colossal dune, Norderoogsand maintains its claim 15 miles off the coast of Schleswig-Holstein.

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Tugtuligssup Sarqardlerssuua

Aerial view of Steenstrup Glacier with icebergs around it

DLR / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Over the past 60 years, the Steenstrup Glacier in northwest Greenland has retreated more than six miles, partly due to climate change. The melt has uncovered several new islands, the most recent in 2014. Researchers believe Tugtuligssup Sarqardlerssuua—named for the mountain that sits atop it—may have helped anchor the glacier in place. Now that it's free, Steenstrup could retreat even faster, generating more islands and further transforming Greenland's coast.

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Pinto Lake Mystery Island

Vegetation-covered bank of Pinto Lake on a blue-sky day
gabrielpropaganda / Getty Images

In the spring of 2016, extreme El Niño-fueled storms in California led to a strange phenomenon in Pinto Lake: A half-acre chunk of wetland covered with trees and grasses broke off one of the banks and began zig-zagging around the 120-acre lake located near Watsonville one morning. Officials even dubbed the floating phenomenon "Roomba Island" because environmental experts hoped its roots would help absorb nutrients from fertilizers that cause the lake's many toxic algae blooms. For now, the mysterious island seems to have wedged itself against a bank and may remain there or eventually decompose.

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Bhasan Char

An aerial image of Char Piya, previously called Thengar Char, located in the Bay of Bengal,

Taro Hama @ e-kamakura / Getty Images

Bhasan Char—also known as Char Piya and previously called Thengar Char—is a 15-square-mile landmass created by Himalayan silt located in the Bay of Bengal, about 37 miles off the mainland of Bangladesh. About a decade after its 2006 formation, the Bangladesh government ordered 100,000 Rohingya refugees that had been housed on the mainland to relocate to the silt island, despite dissuasion from the United Nations Refugee Agency. After building thousands of homes on the island, all four feet off the ground to protect them from flooding, the first Rohingya people were sent to the island in 2020.

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Sif Island

long view of a bleak and icy Sif Island, a new island formed in Antarctica

Courtesy of Guilherme Bortolotto De Oliveira / Thwaites Glacier

Sif Island is an ice-covered, thousand-foot slab of granite that was discovered in Pine Island Bay, West Antarctica, in 2020. It is thought to be a result of the steady, years-long retreat of both Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier, which has taken many tons of weight off the ground and caused rocky bits like Sif to rise in a process called postglacial rebound. The icy chunk was first seen by researchers of the Thwaites Glacier Offshore Research (THOR) project and named after a Norse goddess of the earth.

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Lo'ihi Seamount

Topographic map of Lō'ihi Seamount off the coast of Hawaii

Hawaii_Island_topographic_map-en.svg / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

While it isn't technically an island yet, Lō'ihi Seamount off the coast of Hawaii deserves an honorable mention because it's only 3,200 feet below sea level and likely to become Hawaii's next chunk of terra firma in the next few millennia. The active submarine volcano has been growing 400,000 years, now rising some 10,000 feet from the sea floor (taller than Mount St. Helens before it erupted in 1980).

Like all the Hawaiian islands, Lō'ihi is a hotspot volcano, meaning it's formed by an area of high heat under the earth’s crust rather than along tectonic plate boundaries like other volcanoes. Regular volcanic activity and new lava flows are slowly building up Loihi's height at a rate of about a tenth of a foot per year.