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 blown into the air with such force that it reached the mesosphere, according to the results of a new scientific study.
On January 15 earlier this year, the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted with a catastrophic force about 65 km (40 miles) off the coast of the Kingdom of Tonga. The violence of the explosion sent a huge cloud of debris into the air and… triggered a massive tsunami who tragically killed six.
According to the results of a new scientific study published in the journal Sciencethe plume of ash and gas from this powerful explosion may be the highest of its kind since records began.
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Volcanic eruptions are known to spew out huge debris clouds that can cause widespread disruption and damage, halt air traffic and, in extreme cases, noticeably affect the climate.
While there have been numerous eruptions powerful enough to lift volcanic material high into the sky, few have been powerful enough to launch debris as high as 30 km (19 miles) above Earth. According to the new research, the plume ejected from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano inflated much higher than this, possibly reaching as far as the mesosphere.
Usually, scientists can determine the height of a plume by measuring its temperature and comparing it to the temperatures of air pockets at different heights. This method works because the gas in the Earth’s atmosphere is known to get colder at higher altitudes.
However, when material is pushed very high into the atmosphere, this method is no longer effective, as the air temperature actually begins to increase with altitude.
To accurately measure the height of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga 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 about 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. Despite sharing similar orbital heights, each spacecraft depicted the cloud from a different perspective. The images were captured 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 plume’s true height, thanks to a phenomenon known as the parallax. effect.
The analysis found that the force of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga eruption caused Ha’apai volcanic material to rise an incredible 57 km (35 miles) above the planet’s surface. That means the debris has blasted well into Earth’s third layer, known as the mesosphere, where fast-moving meteorites end their lives in fiery displays as shooting stars.
In the future, the team hopes to discover why the underwater eruption created such a high-altitude plume and develop an automated system for determining the height of volcanic plumes via the parallax effect.
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Anthony provides science and video game news for IGN as a freelance contributor. He has over eight years of experience covering groundbreaking advances in multiple scientific fields and has absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer.
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