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Twice-Reaching Volcanic Plume from Tonga Eruption Breaks into Stratosphere


A massive plume of ash, gases, and water expelled by the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano during its eruption in January has been confirmed to have reached the mesosphere, according to satellite data.

The volcanic plume reached a peak height of 57.5 kilometers, setting a new record for volcanic eruptions. It entered the mesosphere, which is situated above the stratosphere, twice during the eruption – once at 0430 UTC on January 15th and again at 0450 UTC the same day.

Located mainly underwater in a remote area of the Pacific Ocean, the volcano is marked above the water surface by two small uninhabited islands. Despite its remoteness, the eruption claimed the lives of six individuals, with loud booms even heard as far away as New Zealand and Australia.

“We were fortunate that the eruption occurred in a remote location,” says Simon Proud from the University of Oxford. “If it had happened in a more populated area, the consequences would have been incredibly devastating.”

A view of the Tonga eruption, 10 minutes after it started, taken by Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite

Simon Proud / Uni Oxford, RALSpace NCEO / Japan Meteorological Agency

Typically, scientists determine the height of a volcanic plume by analyzing the temperature of the volcanic cloud and the surrounding clouds. However, in the case of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai eruption, the plume was too high for this method to be effective.

Instead, Proud and his colleagues used satellite data and the parallax effect, which involves the shift in the exact location of objects depending on the viewing angle, to calculate the exact height of the plume.

“We are utilizing images from several weather satellites that all capture different angles of this volcano,” he explains. “By comparing different estimates from various angles, we can determine the height with great precision.”

The findings confirm a NASA analysis published in February, which used only two satellites and suggested that the eruption reached a height of 58 kilometers at its peak. Proud states that the latest assessment used additional satellites, making it more reliable.

Volcanic eruptions reaching the mesosphere are extremely rare, and this is the first time scientists have been able to confirm such an event. The previous occurrence of a volcanic eruption on this scale is believed to be the Krakatoa eruption in 1883.

Proud suggests that this new method of measuring the height of volcanic plumes could also be valuable in assessing the growth and severity of storm clouds.

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