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The Melanesia and Australia Region
The islands of Melanesia have been inhabited for at least 3,000 years, but the first western contact was with sailors from Spain and Portugal who landed on New Guinea around 1526 AD. The Solomon Islands were discovered by westerners in 1568, when the region's first historical eruption was recorded on Savo. The New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) were discovered by Spaniards in 1606, a year after the Dutch sighted northernmost Australia. But it was not until Cook's historic voyage of 1770 that Australia's east coast was discovered, and its substantial settling did not begin until 1788. In 1884, Germany took possession of the northern part of New Guinea, and 3 days later Britain declared the southern section a protectorate, followed by outright annexation in 1888. The region's combined land area equals that of California, but many areas are sparsely settled and its population is only slightly greater than that of the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego.
In 1906 this British territory was transferred to newly independent Australia, which also took control of the northern portion of New Guinea during World War I (WW-I). With the exception of Japanese occupation in 1942-45, this situation prevailed until self-government was declared in 1973; full independence came to Papua New Guinea (PNG) two years later. The Solomon Islands had only sporadic contact with the west until Britain established a protectorate in the 1890s; the islands gained independence in 1978. Captain Cook extensively explored the southern islands in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides. Both France and Britain formed trading posts and missions in the last century, formalizing an Anglo-French Condominium in 1906, but the islands remained isolated despite considerable attention during WW-II. The Republic of Vanuatu was declared in 1980.
South of New Britain lies an oceanic trench that parallels its arcuate coast. Nearing the Solomons, the trench swings SE'ly, then down along the Vanuatu chain before turning east again and ending below Hunter Island. This trench system marks the subduction of oceanic crust–the Solomon and Coral Seas–moving N, NE, and E under the volcanic islands formed by this process. Tectonic complications in the form of two short oceanic spreading centers affect nearby volcanoes: One extends from SE New Guinea eastward to Kavachi, and the other runs broadly east-west below the Admiralty Islands at the north end of the region.
Of all historically documented eruptions now known from Melanesia, three-fourths have been recorded in the past century. Melanesia almost matches the Atlantic Ocean as the region with the highest proportion of its eruptions being submarine, and it has nearly a quarter of the world's documented island-building eruptions, many of these from Kavachi volcano. It also matches Indonesia as the region with the highest number of tsunami-producing eruptions; a tsunami accompanying the collapse of Ritter Island volcano in 1888 swept the coasts of Papua New Guinea and New Britain, causing about 700 fatalities. The explosive character of volcanism in this caldera-rich region places Melanesia at the top of the list of documented Holocene caldera-forming eruptions. One of these calderas formed the magnificent natural harbor of Rabaul during a major eruption and collapse in the 6th century. Rabaul was the capital of PNG from 1910 through 1941, and site of a 1937 eruption that killed 441 people. This event led to the founding, in the same year, of one of the world's pre-eminent volcano centers, the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO), operated by the Geological Survey of Papua New Guinea. RVO covers all the volcanoes of PNG, and its work has been particularly valuable in major eruptions such as Lamington in 1951, only a year after RVO resumed operations following WW-II. A major eruption in 1994 destroyed much of Rabaul town and prompted moving the capital city of the province of East New Britain to Kokopo, 20 km away.
Australia overwhelms the island nations of the Melanesia region in size, but we list only one Holocene volcano. This 'volcano' is actually one of Earth's largest volcanic fields, called the Newer Volcanics Province, which covers a broad 15,000 km2 area of SE Australia with nearly 400 small shield volcanoes and explosive vents of Tertiary-to-Holocene age.
List of Holocene volcanoes in the Melanesia and Australia region.