Satellite observations show that the January 15 eruption pushed water vapor 93 miles from the planet’s surface, well beyond the generally accepted edge of space to 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, according to one of the studies presented in Chicago at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
The eruption sent up to 4 million tons of water vapor into space, according to Larry Paxton, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
“This is truly a one-of-a-kind event,” Paxton said. “In the 20 years we’ve been observing, we haven’t seen anything like this.”
The event caught the attention of scientists who use satellites to monitor “space weather”. Scientists monitor space weather due to the risk of a catastrophic solar storm that would send a plume of charged particles to Earth, interacting with the planet’s magnetic field in a way that could damage orbiting satellites or even affect the power grid on the surface .
Shortly before the volcano’s eruption (and by sheer coincidence), a modest-sized solar storm had sent a burst of charged particles towards Earth. But the volcano had an even more powerful effect on the ionosphere, according to Claire Gasque, a PhD student in space physics at the University of California at Berkeley.
Among the shocking effects: A current known as an equatorial electrojet, which normally runs west to east in the ionosphere, reversed direction, he said.
“This was a moderate [solar] storm against a very strong volcano. So that’s not to say a volcano would always win,” Gasque said.
The data can help scientists improve their understanding of space weather, he said in an email: ‘This eruption is a good event to help us understand what a sudden, impulsive burst of energy in the lower atmosphere can do to our environment. space, which will hopefully improve future space weather prediction capabilities.”
Volcanologists have been busy in recent weeks with the eruption of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, and experts will also discuss these observations at this week’s AGU meeting. Mauna Loa is a relatively predictable volcano in the grand scheme of things, and it has been closely monitored for decades.
Conversely, submarine volcanoes such as Hunga Tonga they are often found in very remote locations and their potential for large eruptions remains largely unclear. In January, Tonga’s record-breaking explosion sent tsunamis across the Pacific Ocean and created a sonic boom that could be heard in Alaska. Experts estimate that the amount of energy released by the eruption was as much as 60 megatons, roughly equal to the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever detonated.
“One of the most remarkable things about this volcano was its explosiveness,” Sharon Walker, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said at a news conference on Monday.
Hot lava contacting seawater fuels that explosiveness, he said. Additionally, the submerged volcano’s caldera was relatively close to the surface compared to many of these peaks, and that meant less water pressure from above to suppress the violence of the eruption, she said.
“There are places in the South Pacific that really could use more study,” Jessica Ball, a volcanologist with the US Geological Survey, said in a recent interview. “There are thousands of underwater volcanoes. Not everyone will be active. Sometimes we don’t know they’re active until they start erupting.