(ORDO NEWS) — When the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Hapai volcano erupted on January 15, 2022, it generated atmospheric shock waves, sonic booms and tsunami waves around the world. Now scientists have discovered that the effects of the volcanic eruption have reached space.
Analyzing data from NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite and ESA’s (European Space Agency) Swarm satellites, scientists found that a few hours after the eruption, hurricane-force winds and unusual electric currents.
“The volcano created one of the largest disturbances in space that we have observed in the modern era,” said Brian Harding, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley and lead author of a new paper discussing the findings. “This allows us to test a poorly understood link between the lower atmosphere and space.”
ICON launched in 2019 to determine how terrestrial weather interacts with weather from space, a relatively new idea that replaces previous assumptions that only forces from the sun and space can create weather at the ionospheric boundary.
In January 2022, as the spacecraft passed over South America, it observed one such terrestrial disturbance in the ionosphere caused by a volcano in the South Pacific.
“These results are a fascinating look at how events on Earth can affect weather in space, in addition to space weather affecting Earth,” said Jim Spann, Head of Space Weather, NASA’s Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. , Columbia region. “Understanding space weather in general will help us eventually mitigate its impact on society.”
During the eruption, the volcano threw a giant plume of gases, water vapor and dust into the sky. The explosion also created large pressure disturbances in the atmosphere, resulting in strong winds.
As the winds moved up into the thinner layers of the atmosphere, they began to move faster. Reaching the ionosphere and the edge of space, ICON recorded winds of up to 450 miles per hour – the strongest winds below 120 miles measured by the craft since its launch.
In the ionosphere, extreme winds have also affected electrical currents. Particles in the ionosphere regularly generate an eastward electric current called the equatorial electrojet, which is driven by winds in the lower atmosphere. After the eruption, the equatorial electrojet increased five times its usual peak power and changed direction abruptly, heading west for a short time.
“It’s very surprising to see how the electric jets have changed their direction so much because of what happened on the Earth’s surface,” says Joan Wu, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the new study.
“We’ve only seen this before in severe geomagnetic storms, which are a form of weather in space caused by particles and radiation from the Sun.”
The new study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, expands scientists’ understanding of how the ionosphere is affected by events on the ground as well as from space. A strong equatorial electrojet is associated with a redistribution of material in the ionosphere, which can disrupt GPS and radio signals that are transmitted through this region.
Understanding how this complex region of our atmosphere responds to strong influences from above and below is a key part of NASA’s research. NASA’s upcoming Geospace Dynamics Constellation, or GDC, mission will use a fleet of small satellites, similar to deep ground sensors, to track electrical currents and atmospheric winds passing through the area.
By better understanding what affects electrical currents in the ionosphere, scientists can be better prepared to predict the serious problems caused by such disturbances.
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