Powerful Underwater Volcano Sets New Record for Highest Debris Cloud in Recorded History

Powerful Underwater Volcano Sets New Record for Highest Debris Cloud in Recorded History

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

On January 15 earlier this year, the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a cataclysmic force, roughly 65 km (40 miles) off the coast of the Kingdom of Tonga. The violence of the explosion blasted an enormous cloud of debris skyward and gave rise to a gigantic tsunami that tragically claimed the lives of six.

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

Google Earth Timelapse – 1985 vs. 2020

Volcanic eruptions are known for spewing out vast clouds of debris that are capable of causing widespread disruption and damage, halting air travel, and, in extreme events, noticeably affecting the climate.

Whilst there have been numerous eruptions forceful enough to loft volcanic material high into the sky, very few were powerful enough to launch debris to an altitude 30 km (19 miles) above the Earth. According to the new research, the plume ejected from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano was blasted much higher than this, and may have even reached up into the mesosphere.

Ordinarily, scientists are able to determine the height of a plume by taking measurements of its temperature and comparing it to the temperatures of pockets of air at various altitudes. This method works because the gas in Earth’s atmosphere is known to get increasingly colder at higher altitudes.

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

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

In order to accurately measure the height of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai’s 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 roughly 36,000 km above Earth’s surface. Despite sharing similar orbital heights, each spacecraft imaged the cloud from a different perspective. The images were captured in 10-minute intervals throughout 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 true height of the plume, thanks to a phenomenon known as the parallax effect.

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

Moving forward, the team hopes to discover why the underwater eruption created such a high-altitude plume, and to develop an automated system for determining the height of volcano plumes via the parallax effect.

Stay tuned to IGN for all the weirdest and most important developments from around the scientific world.

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

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