An Underwater Volcano Sent Shockwaves Out Into Space That Passed Through Earth Multiple Times

Earlier this year, from deep within the South Pacific Ocean, an underwater volcano erupted. But this wasn’t just any old rash. It was an underwater explosion that spat out a blast so powerful it set off sonic booms. It caused tsunami waves all over the world. It hurled ash into the atmosphere and sent forth shock waves with enough vigor to cross the waters of the Pacific Basin and rise until they touched the outer reaches of space.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption was monstrous. It is often referred to as one of the most explosive volcanic events in recorded history – some experts even rank these shock waves among the greatest space disturbances of the modern era.

Here is a heartbreaking satellite video of the event.

The GOES-17 satellite captured images of an umbrella cloud generated by the underwater eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on January 15, 2022. Crescent-shaped arcing shock waves and numerous lightning strikes are also visible.

NASA/Joshua Stevens Earth Observatory

In our view, this is an extreme, rather terrifying act of nature. But from a science perspective, it’s a chance event that can help answer some of the most interesting questions about Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why, since the volcanic drama subsided, researchers have meticulously tracked every bit of data recorded about the eruption.

And on Thursday in the journal Nature, one such team announced a new development.

The shock waves that reached space, also known as atmospheric waves, were the fastest ever observed in our planet’s gaseous shell, according to the new study. These ripples reached speeds of 720 miles per hour while overlapping the Earth at least six times.

“It was a truly huge and truly unique explosion in terms of what has been observed by science to date. We’ve never seen atmospheric waves go around the world before, or at this speed – they were moving very close to the theoretical limit,” said Corwin Wright of the Center for Space, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Bath and lead author of the paper, in a statement.

Additionally, to further bolster the potency of the Tonga volcanic detonation, the authors of the new study combined extensive satellite data with ground-based observations to offer concrete evidence that this event was indeed an absolute mammoth. “The data we’ve been able to gather on this will improve our understanding of our atmosphere and help us improve our weather and climate models,” Wright said.

Collecting data from an explosion

Already, scientists around the world scrutinizing the eruption have found some pretty impressive things.

In May, for example, a crew who cruised above the volcanic caldera – the depression that forms the post-volcanic eruption – saw the hump was breathtakingly huge. “It was an amazing find,” a team member told Nature.

During the same month, another group reported that extreme winds emanating from the volcano had affected electrical currents in the ionosphere, forcing east-flowing streams to drastically change direction and rush towards five times that of normal peak power. “This is something we’ve only seen before with strong geomagnetic storms, which are a form of weather in space caused by particles and radiation from the sun,” said one of the co- authors of this study at NASA.

Some experts believe the Tonga Saga could possibly aid studies of space weather, a phenomenon that directly affects you and me.

When electrons from the sun – the result of huge coronal mass ejections – are captured in Earth’s atmosphere, they not only produce wonderful auroras. They also threaten Earth’s power supply, disrupt GPS satellites, and endanger the lives of anyone on the ISS. So, “understanding space weather holistically will ultimately help us mitigate its effects on society,” Jim Spann, space weather manager for NASA’s Heliophysics Division, said in a statement.

An illustration depicting the volcano and the Earth's atmospheric layers.

A diagram showing the positioning of the Tonga volcano under different layers of the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

Further into the future, however, Scott Osprey, co-author of the new study and a researcher in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, said “my gut feeling is that there is more to come from this eruption. “. What we know so far may very well have only scratched the surface of the volcano’s legacy. For example, in the team’s latest eruption update, they show how the wave display that reverberated around the world was driven by massive amounts of vaporized seawater from the explosion itself.

“As the exceptional amount of water vapor pours into the stratosphere,” Osprey said, “eyes will turn to the Antarctic ozone hole and its gravity in the spring.”

It’s been years since a relative needlepoint in the Antarctic ozone layer grew larger than the entire Antarctic continent. The puncture was mainly due to human activity such as the release of aerosols into the atmosphere, therefore, confused by this resultscientists have urged governments to take action and mitigate the use of some harmful man-made chemicals.

Now the hole in the ozone layer is on a slow but sure path to healing. But hopefully, although an “incredible natural experiment”, according to Wright, the drastic detonation of Hunga Tonga will not stop this vital ozone healing process.

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