Satellite images show how ridiculously high Tonga’s volcanic plume rose


The volcanic eruption that rocked Tonga in the Pacific in January was so powerful that the ash was blasted all the way to the mesosphere, the third and coldest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. The volcanic plume, which rises 58 kilometers (36 miles) above the Earth, was probably the highest ever measured by a satellite, according to NASA.

NASA was able to measure the plume because two weather satellites happened to be in the right place at the right time. Those satellites captured still images and infrared observations that show the eruption from above by game.

In just 30 minutes after the eruption, ash, steam and gas from the underwater volcano rose from the ocean’s surface all the way to the mesosphere. A second explosion rose nearly as high, reaching 50 kilometers (31 miles) — placing it right around the mesosphere-stratosphere boundary, the next layer down.

An explosive combination of extreme heat from the volcano and moisture from the ocean helped propel the volcanic plume to such astonishing heights.

“It was like hyperfuel for a mega thunderstorm,” Kristopher Bedka, an atmospheric scientist at NASA, said in a statement. “The plume went 2.5 times higher than any thunderstorm we’ve ever seen, and the eruption produced an incredible amount of lightning.”

When volcanoes release emissions into the atmosphere, they can temporarily cool things down both locally and globally. This is largely due to the sunlight-reflecting particles of sulfur dioxide found in volcanic ash. But because there was so much water vapor and not much sulfur dioxide in this plume, it probably won’t have that effect, according to NASA.

The plume from that historic eruption rose and spread over 13 hours on January 15. But some of the leftover aerosols have persisted and could linger in the stratosphere (just below the mesosphere) for an entire year.

Image: NASA/GOES-17 images courtesy of NOAA and the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS)

NASA scientists analyzed images from NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 17 (GOES-17), which shows the plume in various stages on Jan. 15.

The eruption also triggered a devastating tsunami that swept Tonga. The archipelago was cut off from much of the world for days after the catastrophe severed the single submarine cable connecting it to the internet. Shortly after, rescue efforts brought COVID-19 cases into the country and sparked an outbreak in the island, which had not registered its first infection until October 2021. Now repairing all the damage done to Tonga by the volcano and tsunami will cost a crushing $90 million — equivalent to more than 18 percent of the country’s GDP, according to a World Bank estimate.

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