Slimy brown algae not only survived a wild ride into the stratosphere via a volcanic ash cloud, they landed on distant islands looking flawless, a new study finds.
"There's a crazy contrast between these delicate, glass-shelled organisms and one of the most powerful eruptions in Earth's history," said lead study author Alexa Van Eaton, a postdoctoral scholar at both the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Washington and Arizona State University.
The diatoms were launched by the Taupo super-eruption on New Zealand's North Island 25,000 years ago. More than 600 million cubic meters (20 billion cubic feet) of diatoms from a lake flew into the air, Van Eaton reported Sept. 6 in the journal Geology. Lumped together, the microscopic cells speckled throughout Taupo's ash layers would make a pile as big as Hawaii's famed Diamond Head volcanic cone.
Some diatoms drifted as far as the Chatham Islands, 525 miles (850 kilometers) east of New Zealand. "They just hitched a ride," Van Eaton said. The pristine shells in the Chatham Island ash suggest diatoms could infect new niches by coasting on atmospheric currents.
"If they made it there alive, this is one way microorganisms can travel and meet each other," Van Eaton told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet. "We know that ash from smaller events easily travels around the world." (5 Colossal Cones: Biggest Volcanoes on Earth)