(ORDO NEWS) — When a volcano exploded in the Pacific Ocean near Tonga on January 15, scientists immediately knew they were witnessing something special.
But they didn’t know how special. A new analysis of images taken from orbiting Earth satellites shows that the plume has punched a hole in our atmosphere all the way to the mesosphere.
“The intensity of this event far exceeds the intensity of any thundercloud I have ever studied,” said Christopher Bedka, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Langley who specializes in the study of extreme storms.
Bedka and his colleagues combined images from two satellites, NASA’s GOES-17 and Japan‘s Himawari-8, which observed the eruption with similar infrared cameras from different points in geosynchronous orbit.
Using simple stereo geometry mathematics, the team calculated that the plume had risen to 58 kilometers (36 miles) at its highest point.
By comparison, the largest known volcanic plume in the satellite era before Tonga came from Mount Pinatubo, which spewed ash and aerosols up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) into the air over the Philippines in 1991. The plume of Tonga was 1.5 times the height of Pinatubo.
The high altitude of the Tonga plume means it can influence space weather phenomena such as sprites, airglow and noctilucent clouds that also occur in the mesosphere. Tonga was truly out of the ordinary.
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