Tongi volcano eruption unleashed highest cloud ever

Experts report that the powerful underwater volcanic eruption of the Tonga Tonga-Hungia Hapai volcano in Tonga earlier this year sent the Earth’s atmosphere higher than any other plume recorded.

Researchers say the plume reached about 57 kilometers into the sky, extending more than halfway into space.

The grayish-white plume released by a volcanic eruption has become the first documented plume to penetrate a frozen layer of the atmosphere called the atmosphere, according to scientists who used multiple satellite images to measure its height.

Its column was primarily composed of water, mixed with some ash and sulfur dioxide, said atmospheric scientist Simon Proud, lead author of the research published in Science.

Eruptions from terrestrial volcanoes tend to add more ash and sulfur dioxide and less water.

The deafening eruption of the volcano on January 15th sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and produced an atmospheric wave that traveled multiple times around the world.

The eruption of the volcano in January triggered tsunami warnings for several island nations in the South Pacific.(Reuters: NOAA/CIRA/Handout)

“For me, what was impressive was how fast the eruption happened. It went from nothing to a 57 km-high cloud in just 30 minutes. I can’t imagine what it must have been like when you saw it from Earth,” he said proudly.

“The thing that struck me was the dome-like structure in the center of the canopy shaft. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” added Andrew Prata, an atmospheric scientist at Oxford and co-author of the study.

The damage from the explosion destroyed a small, uninhabited nearby island and killed six local residents.

Its plume extended across the two lower layers of the atmosphere, the troposphere and the stratosphere, and about 7 kilometers into the middle atmosphere. The upper part of the atmosphere is the coldest place in the atmosphere.

The plume was far from reaching the next atmospheric layer, the thermosphere, which begins at an altitude of about 85 km above the Earth’s surface.

The demarcation called the Kerman Line, which is located at an altitude of about 100 km above the Earth’s surface, is considered a limit of space.

Scientists used three geostationary weather satellites, which acquired images every 10 minutes, to measure the eruption and relied on the so-called parallax effect: determining the location of an object by viewing it along multiple lines of sight.

“For our parallax approach to work, you need multiple satellites in different locations — and only in the past decade or so has this become possible on a global scale,” Proud said.

To date, the highest recorded volcanic plumes have been from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, at 40 km, and the 1982 eruption of El Chichon in Mexico, at 31 km.

It is possible that volcanic eruptions in the past produced higher plumes but they occurred before scientists could make such measurements.


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