Pumice Raft or Life Raft?

Featured image: Pumice raft, 13 August 2019. Detail from NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey , available at https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145490/a-raft-of-rock

Philip Jamieson and Mariannne Schmidt 

On an early August 2020 walk along Newport Beach in northern Sydney, Marianne recently found littered on the sand numerous fragments of pumice. Pumice is a very porous, lightweight, frothy-looking volcanic glass which can drift gently with the currents, floating for years on the ocean surface before becoming waterlogged. It is not a common visitor to the sands of Newport Beach.

Pumice Marianne

Photo by Marianne of pumice pieces that were abundant on Newport Beach

By ‘coincidence’, at the time of her pumice find, Marianne was preparing to deliver a range of children’s activities for Science Week. Its synchronistic theme – Deep Blue: innovations for the future of our oceans – with pumice featuring in several activities.

In a further synchronicity, shortly after, Philip visited Caloundra in Queensland, where the northern end of the 35km long channel named Pumicestone Passage opens to the ocean. The Passage was so named (though then thought a river) by Matthew Flinders at the end of the 18th century after he found abundant pieces of pumice on its shores. Walking along Kings Beach during his visit, Philip similarly found an abundance of small fragments of pumice lining the shore.

Philip pumice

Photo by Philip showing some of the numerous small pieces of pumice abundant on Kings Beach

To our minds, these were fairly clear examples of Jung’s ‘meaningful coincidences’. So what was it about pumice that it had so evidently been brought to our attention?

Within a few days we learned that, in early August last year, an undersea volcano had erupted near Tonga in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. The rapid cooling of the liquid lava on its release into the waters surrounding the volcano had caused previously dissolved gases such as water vapour and carbon dioxide to come out of solution and become trapped in the rock, creating pumice with its characteristic porous texture. The eruption created a pumice raft more than 150 square kilometres in area, made up of uncountable pieces of pumice ranging in size from marble to basketball, drifting with the currents, winds and waves towards the Australian coastline.

NASA pumice

The pumice raft, 13 August 2019. Cropped from NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey , available at https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145490/a-raft-of-rock

It was not until April this year, some 8 months after the August 2019 eruption, that pieces of pumice from the raft began drifting ashore on the Queensland coastline. In the months that have followed, pumice has been noted along the eastern Australian coastline as far north as Townsville and as far south as northern New South Wales, a distance of coastline covering some 1500km or more. Indeed, after heavy seas Marianne found fragments of pumice even further south, on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Last year’s undersea eruption near Tonga was the most recent in a pattern of such eruptions which appears to be occurring roughly every 5 years, with previous eruptions in the area in 2009 and 2014. Part of the Pacific “ring of fire”, there are estimated to be some 36 undersea volcanoes clustered in the region.


Tonga identified on world map. By TUBS – Own work This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Adobe Illustrator. This file was uploaded with Commonist. This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file: Polynesian triangle.svg (by Gringer)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15127566

Worldwide there are estimated to be more than a million undersea volcanoes, three quarters of all volcanoes on the planet and producing some 75% of magma vented around the world annually. While not all eruptions produce pumice rafts, such rafts have occurred in all of the major oceans around the world over the past 200 years (and indeed throughout the Holocene), particularly in the Pacific Ocean.

Pumice rafts as cradles of life

It was towards the end of Science Week that, while learning of a Sydney Marine Institute initiative to re-establish seaweed forests of crayweed previously abundant on reefs off Sydney’s coastline, Marianne became aware of the role of pumice as another vehicle for restoring the health of reefs.

Where a pumice raft results from an eruption of one of these volcanoes, billions to trillions of small, porous pumice pieces can float together over a period of many months, in the case of this recent raft slowly making it way towards the Australian coastline. As they do they become vehicles for dozens of species of marine life – such as algae, barnacles, corals, crabs, snails and worms – operating as a very effective dispersal platform for a wide ranging community of marine organisms. Not only does the enormous mass of pumice in a raft offer a prodigious abundance of rafting vehicles, the very porous nature of the pumice pieces provide a high surface area for marine organism attachment while its characteristic surface depressions offer protection from predators. Pumice rafts are important facilitators of the health of marine communities and in particular, in our tropical waters, of our coral reef habitats, providing millions of reef-building organisms in what has been described as a ‘vitamin boost’ for our Great Barrier Reef.

Pumice rafts as cradles for life

While pumice rafts clearly serve as cradles of life for many marine organisms, it has been hypothesised that they may also have served as cradles for life, as an origin of life on earth.

In a recent post, We are NOT Alone: Thoughts on Comets and Meteorites – Where Life Began? (published in New Dawn magazine: (July-August 2020) 181: 25-30), we explored the theory of panspermia, that life is distributed through the Universe by cosmic visitors such as comets and meteorites. There are several other well-known hypotheses about the origin of life. One of the more popular relates to the possible role of undersea hydrothermal vents. But these are merely part of a broader volcanic environment on the planet. In our view, volcanism and life are inextricably linked. Pumice rafts are another expression of volcanic activity. Unsurprisingly to our minds, in recent years pumice rafts have founded a hypothesis that pumice may have served as a suitable substrate for the origin of life on earth. Pumice is recognised for its “remarkable ability to adsorb metals, organics, and phosphates as well as to host organic catalysts such as zeolites and titanium oxides”. When considered together with the properties of pumice we have mentioned earlier, the academic authors who first advanced this hypothesis in 2011 concluded that “floating and beached rafts of highly vesicular volcanic rock provided a remarkable locus for organic polymer generation and abiogenesis”.

Volcanism and consciousness

So pumice rafts had clearly been brought to our attention, as cradles of life, perhaps even cradles for life. While these roles are without doubt profound, we wondered if there was even more to be said of their significance.

Pumice rafts are formed from the eruptions of undersea volcanoes. Numerous around the planet, undersea volcanoes are commonly located at mid-ocean ridges where tectonic plate formation occurs. Hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean also typically form along these mid-ocean ridges and are commonly found near undersea volcanoes. It is that volcanic activity that heats the seawater seeping through fissures in the seafloor to create the mineral-rich hydrothermal fluid exuded by these vents.

It is interesting that undersea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents are part of a wider volcanic environment that connects the planet’s surface, and humanity upon it, with the planet’s inner earth. There are numerous traditions in the mythology of ancient cultures about the existence of an inner earth, many speaking of this subterranean world as a place of origin or afterlife. In ancient Western traditions, we are familiar with the Christian Hell, the Ancient Greek underworld ruled over by Hades and the subterranean Svartálfaheim, home of the elves and one of the nine worlds in Norse mythology. Such traditions are found throughout the world. For example, Pacific Trobriand islanders, indigenous peoples of northern Brazil and several Native American tribes (amongst them the Mandan, Iroquois, Apache and Hopi) all have traditions about their ancestors emerging from a subterranean world.

In Eastern traditions, Tibetan Buddhists speak of a subterranean city called Shambhala, from which it is prophesised will emerge a mighty army led by its king to vanquish an outer world that has become riven with materialism, greed and war to usher in a new worldwide Golden Age. This city is a world of peace and harmony, beauty and perfection, knowledge and wisdom, awareness and understanding.

Awareness and understanding are at the heart of consciousness. Perhaps these ancient traditions align with a recognition of some inner earth consciousness, a ‘consciousness’ that employs its volcanism to create pumice rafts that help maintain conditions conducive to planetary life. This thesis postulates the earth as effectively a single organism acting consciously to synergistically regulate its environment.

As individuals we also effectively appear to be a single organism, the cells of our bodies likewise acting synergistically in seeking to maintain our overall bodily health and wellbeing.  But this occurs without ‘consciousness’.  Clearly, while consciousness may facilitate such synergistic regulation, those synergies may occur without it.  A vision of the earth as a similarly ‘unconscious’ but nevertheless still synergistically self-regulating system can be found in Dr James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, drawing upon the longstanding tradition of Mother Earth as a living being embodied in the Greek Goddess Gaia.  It proposes that the earth’s organic and inorganic elements interact in effect as a single organism in a self-regulating system that actively maintains and perpetuates a homeostatic balance of the optimal conditions for life, such as global temperature, atmospheric content and ocean salinity. As part of this homeostatic balance, pumice rafts replenish the health of our marine communities and in particular provide millions of reef-building organisms in what we have already noted is a ‘vitamin boost’ for our Great Barrier Reef as it faces multiple threats from climate change, poor water quality from land-based run off, fishing and coastal development.

Whether or not pumice rafts may be seen as an expression of ‘earth consciousness’, they have an undoubted role as ‘life rafts’ for the health of our marine communities. In that role, they are part of the interdependent relationship that exists between humanity and our environment, long part of the cultural beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples around the world. In a recent post, Plugged into the Planet – Timeless understanding in a time of global need, we explored how science, particularly in our growing understanding of quantum entanglement, is speaking strongly to the existence of an energetic planetary interconnectivity, an interconnectedness of all things that we believe is leading us towards an understanding that everything is ultimately one. Each pumice raft comprises billions to trillions of pieces of pumice, each piece unique in size and shape, housing and protecting its own unique menagerie of marine life. A pumice raft not only serves to perhaps demonstrate ‘earth consciousness’, and the principle of interconnectivity, it may also serve as a metaphor for humanity – each piece of pumice one amongst billions travelling together, each an individual part of what is ultimately a single whole.

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