Science

A powerful underwater volcano sets a new record for the largest debris cloud in recorded history

A powerful underwater volcano sets a new record for the largest debris cloud in recorded history

Remnants of the January eruption of the Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in the South Pacific were blasted into the air with such force that they actually reached the mesosphere, according to a new scientific study.

On January 15th earlier this year, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano erupted with cataclysmic force, approximately 65 km (40 miles) off the coast of the Kingdom of Tonga. The violent explosion sent a huge cloud of debris skyward and led to a huge tsunami which tragically claimed the lives of six.

According to the results of a new scientific study published in the journal Sciencethe plume of ash and gas from this powerful explosion could be the tallest of its kind since records began.

Volcanic eruptions are notorious for spewing huge clouds of debris that can cause widespread disruption and damage, shut down air travel and, in extreme cases, significantly affect the climate.

Although there have been numerous eruptions powerful enough to lift volcanic material high into the sky, very few have been powerful enough to send debris 30 km (19 mi) above Earth. According to new research, the plume ejected from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano exploded much higher than this, and may have even reached the mesosphere.

Scientists are usually able to determine the height of a cloud by measuring its temperature and comparing it to the temperatures of air pockets at different altitudes. This method works because gas in the Earth’s atmosphere is known to get colder at higher altitudes.

A zoomed-in view of the eruption, taken by Japan's Himawari-8 satellite at 05:40 UTC on January 15, 2022, about 100 minutes after the eruption began.  (Photo credit: Simon Proud / Uni Oxford, RALSpace NCEO / Japan Meteorological Agency)

A zoomed-in view of the eruption, taken by Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite at 05:40 UTC on January 15, 2022, about 100 minutes after the eruption began. (Photo credit: Simon Proud / Uni Oxford, RALSpace NCEO / Japan Meteorological Agency)

However, when the material is pushed very high into the atmosphere, this method ceases to be effective, as the temperature of the air actually begins to increase with height.

To accurately measure the height of the Hung Tong-Hung Ha’apai plume, the scientists behind the study instead turned to data collected by a trio of satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Each of the weather satellites observed the eruption from a vantage point approximately 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. Despite sharing similar orbital altitudes, each spacecraft imaged the cloud from a different perspective. The images were taken at 10-minute intervals during the eruption.

By observing the cloud from multiple perspectives and combining the images with known quantities such as the distances between points on the planet’s surface, the team was able to determine the cloud’s true height, thanks to a phenomenon known as the parallax effect.

The analysis revealed that the power of the Hung Tonga-Hung Ha’apai eruption sent volcanic material an incredible 57 km (35 miles) above the planet’s surface. This means the debris is blown deep into the third layer of Earth’s atmosphere known as the mesosphere, where fast-moving meteorites end their lives in fiery displays like shooting stars.

Moving forward, the team hopes to discover why the underwater eruption created the plume at such a high altitude, and to develop an automated system to determine the height of volcanic plumes through the parallax effect.

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Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video game news for IGN. He has more than eight years of experience covering the latest developments in multiple scientific fields and has absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer.



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