Debris from January’s eruption of the Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in the South Pacific was hurled 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 undersea volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted with cataclysmic force, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of the Kingdom of Tonga. The massive explosion blasted a huge cloud of debris skyward and triggered a giant 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 to spew massive clouds of debris that are capable of causing widespread disruption and damage, halting air travel and, in extreme events, appreciably affecting the climate.
While there have been numerous eruptions powerful enough to send volcanic material high into the sky, very few have been powerful enough to hurl debris 30 km (19 mi) above Earth. According to the new research, the plume ejected from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano was shot much higher than that, and may have even reached the mesosphere.
Typically, scientists are able to determine the height of a plume by taking measurements of its temperature and comparing it to the temperatures of air pockets at various altitudes. This method works because the gas in Earth’s atmosphere is known to get colder at higher altitudes.
However, when the material is pushed very high in the atmosphere, this method ceases to be effective, as the temperature of the air 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 to data collected by a trio of satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
Each of the weather satellites observed the explosion from a vantage point about 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. Despite sharing similar orbital altitudes, each spacecraft imaged the cloud from a different angle. Images were captured at 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 actual height of the cloud, thanks to a phenomenon known as the parallax effect.
The analysis revealed that the force of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption sent volcanic material soaring an incredible 57 km (35 miles) above the planet’s surface. This means the debris was ejected well into the third layer of Earth’s atmosphere, known as the mesosphere, where fast-moving meteors 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 develop an automated system to determine the height of volcanic plumes through the parallax effect.
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Anthony is a freelance contributor who covers science news and video games for IGN. He has over eight years of experience covering important developments in multiple scientific fields and has no time for your bullshit. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer.
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