On January 15, 2022, an underwater volcano located in the South Pacific known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai erupted in a historic event that sent shockwaves around the world. Months after the initial eruption, new findings showed that the blast had expelled a jaw-dropping 58,000 swimming pool worth of water into the atmosphere, marking an unparalleled amount. However, recent studies conducted by volcanologists revealed that the explosion’s ash and water plume reached an astounding height of more than 35 miles, making it the highest ever recorded.
Simon Proud, a research fellow at the United Kingdom’s National Centre for Earth Observation and the lead author of the study recently published in the prestigious journal Science, described the discovery as “extraordinary.” According to him, no such high clouds have been witnessed before in history.
The tremendously powerful eruption shattered through the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere where humans reside and experience weather, reaching approximately 7.5 miles in height. It then surged through the stratosphere, a mostly cloudless and weather-free region that extends up to 31 miles above the earth’s surface. Ultimately, the plume penetrated the mesosphere, where most meteoroids are incinerated. In fact, it climbed beyond halfway to outer space, as Proud put it in a tweet.
The groundbreaking research was only made possible due to the collaboration among various international space agencies. Using images captured by three separate weather satellites—the U.S.’s GOES-17, Japan’s Himawari-8, and South Korea’s GK-2A—operated by their respective countries, the team managed to gain a multidimensional perspective on the monumental blast. These cutting-edge satellites provided visual data with a frequency of just ten minutes, enabling the team to accurately gauge the elevation of the volcanic cloud.
However, it is important to note that similar colossal eruptions in the past lacked such sophisticated satellite technology. For instance, the devastating 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, the second largest eruption of the 20th century, only reached a peak altitude of 25 miles according to observations from that time. But thanks to the state-of-the-art imagery from the current study, experts now believe that earlier eruptions might have actually surpassed the 25-mile threshold.
As for the source of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai’s immense volcanic energy, it stems from the fact that the location of the eruption is entirely beneath the ocean. At roughly 500 feet below the surface, the eruption had access to vast quantities of water that were dramatically thrust into the sky. Although visually spectacular, the immediate consequences of this eruption on climate change would likely be negligible. While water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas that retains heat, the brief influence of this event on global warming is predicted to be inconsequential, according to NASA.
Moreover, modern climate change trends can primarily be attributed to human activities rather than natural occurrences such as volcanic eruptions. This particular eruption serves as an example of Mother Nature’s breathtaking power while also providing valuable insights for researchers seeking to comprehend the potential scale of future volcanic events. By studying Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai,’ scientists can better anticipate and communicate the implications of such disasters for both communities and aviation industries alike.