Powerful underwater volcano sets new record for highest debris cloud in recorded history – IGN

Debris from the January eruption of the Tonga-Hungia Hapai volcano has been blasted into the air with such force that it has already reached the atmosphere, according to the results of a new scientific study.

On January 15 earlier this year, the underwater volcano Hengja Tonga-Hung Hapai erupted with catastrophic force, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of the Kingdom of Tonga. The violence of the explosion caused a massive cloud of debris to explode skyward and triggered a massive tsunami that tragically killed six people.

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 longest of its kind since records began.

Volcanic eruptions are notorious for ejecting vast clouds of debris capable of causing widespread disruption and damage, halting air travel and, in extreme events, significantly affecting the climate.

While there have been many volcanic eruptions powerful enough to lift volcanic material high into the sky, a few have been strong enough to release debris 30 km (19 miles) above Earth. According to the new research, the plume emitted from the Hong Tonga-Hung Hapai volcano erupted much higher than that, possibly reaching the atmosphere.

Usually, scientists can determine the height of a plume by taking measurements of its temperature and comparing them to the temperatures of air pockets at different altitudes. This method works because the gas in Earth’s atmosphere gets colder at higher altitudes.

An enlarged image of the eruption, taken by the Japanese satellite Himawari-8 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)

An enlarged image of the eruption, taken by the Japanese satellite Himawari-8 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 materials are pushed high into the atmosphere, this method ceases to be effective, as the air temperature actually begins to increase with altitude.

In order to accurately measure the height of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai plume, the scientists behind the study turned instead to data collected by three of the satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Both weather satellites observed the eruption of the volcano from a vantage point approximately 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. Despite sharing similar orbital heights, each spacecraft photographed the cloud from a different perspective. Images were taken at 10-minute intervals throughout the eruption period.

By observing the cloud from multiple perspectives and combining images with known quantities such as 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 revealed that the force of the eruption of the Honga Tonga Hung Hapai volcano sent volcanic material to an incredible height 57 kilometers (35 miles) above the planet’s surface. This means that the debris has been blown away well into the third layer of Earth’s atmosphere known as the atmosphere, where fast-moving meteors end their lives in fiery shows as bright stars.

Going forward, the team hopes to discover why an underwater volcanic eruption caused a plume from high altitudes, and to develop an automated system for determining the height of the volcano’s plumes through parallax effect.

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

Anthony is an independent contributor covering science and video game news for IGN. He has over eight years of experience covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and there is absolutely no time to be deceived. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer.

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