Scientists Identify the Highest-Ever Recorded Volcanic Plume

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano.

Using images captured by satellites, researchers in the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics and RAL Space have confirmed that the January 2022 eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano produced the highest-ever recorded plume. (Image: Simon Proud via Uni Oxford, RALSpace NCEO / Japan Meteorological Agency)

The January 2022 eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano produced the highest-ever recorded volcanic plume. Using satellite images, researchers at the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics and RAL Space confirmed this. The colossal eruption is also the first to have been directly observed to have broken through to the mesosphere layer of the atmosphere. The results have been published in the journal Science.

The volcanic plume measures 5 km wide at the base and rises to 18-20 km altitude in each of these photos.
Successive photos of the explosion at Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai were taken at 1712 (5:12 pm, top), 1727 (middle), and 1816 (bottom) on January 14, 2022. The view at 1712 is toward the NE, with the volcano in the foreground. The photo at 1727 looks E with Hunga Ha’apai in the foreground and Hunga Tonga on the far right. In the 1816 image, the view is to the N, with Hunga Ha’apai to the left of the volcanic plume. The volcanic plume measures 5 km wide at the base and rises to 18-20 km altitude in each of these photos. (Image: Tonga Geological Services)

On January 15, 2022, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai, a submarine volcano in the Tongan archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean, violently erupted. The explosion was one of the most powerful ever observed, sending shock waves worldwide and triggering devastating tsunamis that left thousands homeless.

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A towering column of ash and water was ejected into the atmosphere — but until now, scientists have not measured how tall this was.

Usually, the height of a volcanic plume can be estimated by measuring the temperature recorded at the top by infrared-based satellites and comparing this to a reference vertical temperature profile. This is because temperature decreases with height in the troposphere (the first and lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere).

But suppose the eruption is so large that the volcanic plume penetrates the next layer of the atmosphere (the stratosphere). In that case, this method becomes ambiguous because the temperature increases again with height (due to the ozone layer absorbing solar ultraviolet radiation).

To overcome this problem, the researchers used a novel method based on a phenomenon called the parallax effect. This is the apparent difference in an object’s position when viewed from multiple lines of sight. You can see this for yourself by closing your right eye and holding out one hand with the thumb raised upward.

If you switch your eyes so that your left is closed and your right is open, your thumb will shift slightly against the background. By measuring this apparent change in position and combining this with the known distance between your eyes, you can calculate the distance to your thumb.

The location of the Tonga volcano is covered by three geostationary weather satellites, so the researchers could apply the parallax effect to the aerial images these captured.

The volcanic plume reached 57 km in height

Crucially, during the eruption itself, the satellites recorded images every 10 minutes, enabling the rapid changes in the volcanic plume’s trajectory to be documented. The results showed that the volcanic plume reached an altitude of 57 kilometers at its greatest extent. This is significantly higher than the previous record holders: the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (40 km at its highest point) and the 1982 eruption of El Chichón in Mexico (31 km).

It also makes the volcanic plume the first observational evidence of a volcanic eruption injecting material through the stratosphere and directly into the mesosphere, which starts at about 50 km above the Earth’s surface. Lead author Dr. Simon Proud (University of Oxford, RAL Space, and the National Centre for Earth Observation) said:

“It’s an extraordinary result as we have never seen a cloud of any type this tall before. Furthermore, the ability to estimate the height the way we did (using the parallax method) is only possible now that we have good satellite coverage. It wouldn’t have been possible a decade or so ago.”

The Oxford researchers now intend to construct an automated system to compute the heights of volcano plumes using the parallax method. Co-author Dr. Andrew Prata from the Sub-department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, added:

“We’d also like to apply this technique to other eruptions and develop a dataset of plume heights that volcanologists and atmospheric scientists can use to model the dispersion of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. Further science questions that we would like to understand are: Why did the Tonga plume go so high? What will be the climate impacts of this eruption? And what exactly was the plume composed of ?”

Besides the University of Oxford, the study also involved the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and National Centre for Earth Observation in Harwell and the Munich University of Applied Sciences.

Provided by the University of Oxford [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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