Tonga volcano eruption blasts millions of tons of water into space

Tonga volcano eruption blasts millions of tons of water into space


The eruption of the Hunga Tonga submarine volcano in the Pacific Ocean earlier this year was so powerful it sent a huge plume of water vapor into space, according to a study released Monday. A volcano throwing water beyond the atmosphere had never before been observed by scientists. The research underscores the unusually violent nature of the eruption – and highlights the wider hazards of submarine volcanoes.

Satellite observations show the January 15 eruption blasted water vapor 93 miles from the planet’s surface, well beyond the generally accepted limit of space at 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, according to one of the studies being presented in Chicago at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The eruption sent up to 4 million metric tons of water vapor into space, according to Larry Paxton, a scientist with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.

“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Paxton said. “In 20 years of making observations, we haven’t seen anything like it.”

The event caught the attention of scientists who use satellites to monitor “space weather”. Scientists are tracking space weather due to the risk of a catastrophic solar storm that would send a plume of charged particles to Earth, interacting with the planet’s magnetic field in ways that could damage orbiting satellites or even affect the power grid on the surface.

Just before the volcano erupted (and coincidentally), a modest-sized solar storm had sent a burst of charged particles towards Earth. But the volcano had an even more powerful effect on the ionosphere, according to Claire Gasque, a doctoral student in space physics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Among the shocking effects: A current known as the equatorial electrojet, which normally flows west to east in the ionosphere, in reverse, she said.

“He was a moderate [solar] storm against a very powerful volcano. So that doesn’t mean a volcano would always win,” Gasque said.

The data can help scientists improve their understanding of space weather, she said in an email: “This flare is a good event to help us understand what a sudden, impulsive burst of energy in the lower atmosphere can do to our space environment, which will hopefully improve future space weather forecasting capabilities.

Volcanologists have been busy for the past few weeks due to the eruption of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, and experts will also be discussing those sightings this week at the AGU meeting. Mauna Loa is a relatively predictable volcano in the grand scheme of things, and it has been closely watched for decades.

In contrast, submarine volcanoes such as Hunga Tonga are often found in very remote locations and their potential for large eruptions remains largely uncertain. In January, Tonga’s record-breaking explosion sent tsunamis into the Pacific Ocean and created a sonic boom that could be heard in Alaska. Experts estimate that the amount of energy released by the eruption amounted to 60 megatons, roughly equivalent to the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever exploded.

“One of the most remarkable things about this volcano was how explosive it was,” Sharon Walker, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said at Monday’s news conference.

Hot lava coming into contact with seawater fuels this explosiveness, she said. Additionally, the submerged volcano’s caldera was relatively close to the surface compared to many such peaks, which meant less water pressure from above to suppress the violence of the eruption, he said. she declared.

“There are places in the South Pacific that could really use more study,” Jessica Ball, volcanologist at the US Geological Survey, said in a recent interview. “There are thousands of underwater volcanoes. Not all will be active. Sometimes we don’t know they’re active until they start to pop.

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