Most people are familiar with pumice as a fantastic foot exfoliation product and have little idea of where it comes from or how it could be important for shallow marine ecosystem biodiversity. Below is an explanation of how this all fits together, alternatively if you are strapped for time and prefer to watch a short 3 minute video of me presenting my research at the FameLab National Finals in Perth 2015 – click here.
Havre pumice clast
Pumice stone is actually formed from the highly explosive eruption of underwater volcanoes or volcanoes close to shorelines. For example The Havre Volcano (see image below) is an underwater volcano which lies on the Kermadec arc (see map below image) just North-east of New Zealand which erupted in July 2012 and formed the pumice raft which I am studying.
But how can pumice float?
Once the pumice stone is formed it is able to float, and this is because pumice stone is filled with millions of tiny gas-filled chambers – much like a Cadbury aero bar (if you are from Australia you will know what this is – but see images below). And when many pieces of pumice are formed from a volcanic eruption and they all float together on the surface of the ocean or water body they form what is known as a ‘pumice raft’.
Now when the pumice is formed generally it’s not just a couple of pieces it’s more, a lot more. It’s actually trillions of pieces. For example the volcano that formed the pumice raft I am studying – the Havre volcano – formed approximately 4 trillion pieces when it erupted in July 2012. Which as you can imagine formed an absolutely enormous pumice raft that was initially the area of Belgium and eventually spread out to equal the area of France. That’s equivalent to approximately 500 million Olympic sized swimming pools and it was so large it could even be seen from space – see the NASA image of the pumice raft below:
So these pumice stones can be thought of as mini-islands (see the link to the Theory of Island Biogeography?) and they float around the Pacific Ocean and over-time they are colonised by all kinds of marine biota.
Okay so what happens next?
These biota essentially hitch-hike across the ocean to the coastlines of islands and continents and as such provide a mass dispersion avenue for all of these sedentary organisms (anemones, corals, barnacles, algae etc) which without pumice or other floating substrates (e.g., algae, wood) would be stuck in their home range and would never colonise new ecosystems.
As a result, this study may help us to understand the way shallow marine biodiversity assembles and may also allow us to understand how and why the Great Barrier Reef was formed.