Feb 17, 2022 - Science

NASA: Tonga volcano plume reached the mesosphere, setting record

A series of photos depicting the volcano's eruption in mid-January.
A series of photos depicting the volcano's eruption in mid-January. Photos: NASA Earth Observatory

The plume from an undersea volcanic eruption near the uninhabited island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai last month reached the mesosphere — the third layer of Earth's atmosphere, according to NASA.

Why it matters: NASA scientists estimate that it was likely the highest volcanic plume ever recorded, with gas, steam and ash rising 36 miles after the explosion, the aftereffects of which killed at least three people in Tonga.

  • Scientists were able to make these estimates because two weather satellites were uniquely positioned to observe the aftermath of the explosion.

By the numbers: The Tonga eruption plume was 1.5 times the height of the plume from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a stratovolcano in the Philippines, NASA said.

What they're saying: “The intensity of this event far exceeds that of any storm cloud I have ever studied,” said Kristopher Bedka, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center who specializes in studying extreme storms.

  • “The combination of volcanic heat and the amount of superheated moisture from the ocean made this eruption unprecedented. It was like hyper-fuel for a mega-thunderstorm,” Bedka added.
  • “The plume went 2.5 times higher than any thunderstorm we have ever observed, and the eruption generated an incredible amount of lightning. That is what makes this significant from a meteorological perspective.”

The big picture: Once the plume reached the mesosphere, the upper part of it almost immediately sublimated, meaning it went from a solid to a gas state without first passing through a liquid state.

  • Volcanic ash and gas spread out around 20 miles up into the stratosphere and eventually covered an area of 60,000 square miles, which is larger than the state of Georgia.
  • Aerosols from the plume have persisted in the stratosphere for nearly a month after the eruption and could stay for a year or more, NASA researchers said.

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