Tonga volcano eruption sends record-breaking ash cloud more than 57 kilometers into the air

(ORDO NEWS) — According to experts, a powerful underwater eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano on Tonga earlier this year led to the formation of a plume that rose higher into the Earth’s atmosphere than any other on record.

The plume rose into the sky to a height of about 57 kilometers, stretching more than halfway into space, the researchers said.

The whitish-grey plume ejected by the eruption was the first documented plume to penetrate a cold layer of the atmosphere called the mesosphere, according to scientists who used numerous satellite images to measure its height.

Its plume was composed mostly of water, laced with ash and sulfur dioxide, said atmospheric scientist Simon Proud, lead author of the study, published in the journal Science.

Eruptions from land-based volcanoes typically contain more ash and sulfur dioxide and less water.

A deafening eruption on January 15 sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and created an atmospheric wave that circled the world several times.

“What was impressive to me was how quickly the eruption happened. It went from nothing to a 57 km cloud in just 30 minutes. I can’t imagine what it was like to watch from the ground,” Mr Proud said.

“I was fascinated by the domed structure at the center of the umbrella plume. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” added Oxford atmospheric scientist and study co-author Andrew Prata.

As a result of the eruption, a small and uninhabited neighboring island was destroyed, six local residents were killed.

Its plume passed through the two lower layers of the atmosphere, the troposphere and stratosphere, and penetrated into the mesosphere for about 7 km. The upper part of the mesosphere is the coldest place in the atmosphere.

The plume was far from reaching the next layer of the atmosphere, the thermosphere, which begins at an altitude of about 85 km above the Earth’s surface.

Tonga volcano eruption sends record breaking ash cloud more than 57 kilometers into the air

The border with space is considered to be the Karman line, located at an altitude of about 100 km above the Earth’s surface.

The scientists used three geostationary meteorological satellites, which took pictures every 10 minutes, to measure the explosion and relied on the so-called parallax effect: determining the position of something by observing it along multiple lines of sight.

“For the parallax method we use to work, you need multiple satellites in different locations – and it’s only in the last decade or so that this has become possible on a global scale,” Proud said.

So far, the highest recorded volcanic plumes have been the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines at 40 km and the 1982 El Chichon eruption in Mexico at 31 km.

Volcanic eruptions in the past likely produced higher plumes, but they occurred before scientists could make such measurements.


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