NASA says Tonga eruption sent up the highest plumes of ash ever recorded by satellite

(ORDO NEWS) — When the Tonga volcano erupted on January 15, satellites saw for the first time a plume of volcanic ash rushing into the mesosphere, the third layer of the Earth‘s atmosphere.

According to NASA, the eruption of the Tonga volcano was the largest since satellites began to observe our planet. When a Pacific volcano threw an explosion of ash and gases into the sky with a force of about 10 megatons of TNT, two meteorological satellites flew over it.

The spacecraft – GOES-17 of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and Himawari-8 of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency – filmed the eruption in infrared every 10 minutes for 13 hours.

NASA scientists analyzed satellite imagery and determined that the initial plume of ash rose to a height of 36 miles (58 km), breaking through the mesosphere, the region where meteorites that hit Earth burn up and create shooting stars that streak across the night sky.

It took about 30 minutes for the volcanic plume to rise this high. The secondary plume then rose over 31 miles (50 kilometers). Both are visible in yellow in the satellite imagery below. The top of these plumes turned to gas and dissipated almost immediately due to dry conditions in the mesosphere.

“The intensity of this event far exceeds that of any thundercloud I have ever studied,” Christopher Bedka, a NASA atmospheric scientist specializing in extreme storms, said in a statement Wednesday. “We’re lucky it’s been seen so well by our latest generation of geostationary satellites, and we’re able to use this data in innovative ways to document its evolution.”

Prior to this, the largest volcanic plume ever recorded by satellites was the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, according to NASA. This plume rose 22 miles (35 kilometers) over the Philippines, far into the stratosphere, but did not reach the mesosphere.

Thunder and lightning study helps track Tonga volcano eruption

Volcano Tonga was once completely underwater. It caught the attention of scientists in 2015 when it erupted under the ocean and suddenly rose to form land that connected two pre-existing islands: Hunga Tonga and Hunga Hapai.

Nearly a decade of low-level volcanic activity culminated in a series of violent eruptions in January that devastated the newborn island and ripped off large chunks of Hunga Tong and Hunga Hapai.

These lands were uninhabited, but the eruption and the resulting tsunami destroyed houses, boats and fisheries on nearby inhabited islands, and also severed the underwater Internet cable that provides Tonga’s Internet connection. Three people died as a result of the eruption. The World Bank estimated that the damage from this event amounted to $90.4 million – 20 percent of Tonga’s GDP.

To map the ash plume from the first eruption, Bedka and NASA colleague Konstantin Khlopenkov used images from two satellites, much like our brains use images from two eyes. They ran an algorithm that compared satellite images and the different angles they were taken to build a 3D plume profile. They developed this method to study severe thunderstorms in the stratosphere.

“The combination of volcanic heat and the amount of superheated moisture from the ocean made this eruption unprecedented. It was like hyperfuel for a mega thunderstorm,” Bedka said, adding: “The plume rose 2.5 times higher than any thunderstorm we’ve ever experienced.” or observed, and the eruption generated an incredible amount of lightning.”

According to Finnish company Vaisala’s global lightning detection network, the eruption generated 400,000 lightning strikes over the course of six hours.

“That’s what makes it significant from a meteorological point of view,” Bedka added.

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