Home Science & Technology The eruption of Tonga has reached space!

The eruption of Tonga has reached space!


What does a massive volcanic eruption from space look like. The satellite GOES-17 took pictures of an umbrella cloud formed by an underwater eruption of the Tonga-Hong Haapai volcano on January 15, 2022. The eruption of Tonga sent through the atmosphere crescent-shaped shock waves, as well as numerous lightning strikes. Credits: Image from NASA’s Earth Observatory, taken by Joshua Stevens using images from GOES, provided by NOAA and NESDIS

Volcanic eruptions do more than send lava and clouds of harmful gas through the landscape, and cause tsunamis and sonic shocks. Sometimes they reach out to space! In the case of the underwater eruption of Tonga-Hung Haapai in January 2022, it sent a wave of pressure through all the heights of the Earth’s atmosphere. Seismic stations and meteorological stations around the world (including on my front deck) recorded this wave as it boomeranged around the planet! And there was another amazing result. The eruption of Tonga broke the Earth’s atmosphere and caused disturbances similar to space weather at the edge of space.

Understanding space weather

We are all familiar with the effects of geomagnetic storms high above the Earth’s surface. They are caused by “space weather” conditions, sometimes called “space climate”. Cosmic weather is a product of the solar wind and the interaction with the magnetic fields of the entire solar system. On Earth, geomagnetic storms are formed as a result of the arrival of masses of charged particles from the Sun. When these clouds of energetic particles enter our magnetic field, they disrupt electric currents in our atmosphere. During most solar flares we get beautiful manifestations of the northern and southern lights. However, if the storms are strong enough, they could affect satellite communications and disconnect power from the ground.

Atmospheric physicists spend a lot of time working with solar scientists to predict solar flares that cause space weather conditions. They are also well aware of how geomagnetic storms affect the ionosphere. However, they are still working on understanding the relationship between the lower atmosphere and geomagnetic activity in near-Earth space.

The effects of space weather from the Tongan eruption

Given all this, imagine how surprised atmospheric scientists were when they witnessed a disturbance in the upper atmosphere that looked like space weather. This was not due to a solar flare (although the sun was active). Instead, the outrage was another volcano effect that has been doing what volcanoes have been doing for billions of years.

That’s what happened. The eruption of Tonga sent a huge plume of gases, water vapor and dust into the sky and caused significant disturbances in atmospheric pressure. (You can see quite spectacular animation of the atmospheric effect hereprovided New York Times. ) The explosion also created huge storms that extended upward into space. A NASA ionospheric compound researcher (ICON) has recorded these extraordinary disturbances. It was launched in 2019 to study how Earth weather interacts with space weather. The European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites also detected changes in ionospheric flows during the event. SWARM is part of the Earth explorer program, which studies the Earth’s magnetic field.

Detection of winds from eruptions

Graphic diagram of the eruption of Tonga-Hung Haapai on January 15, 2022. This shows the consequences of the eruption of Tonga in the entire atmosphere and near-Earth space in the upper ionosphere.  Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Mary Pat Fungus-Keith
Graphic diagram of the eruption of Tonga-Hung Haapai on January 15, 2022. This shows the consequences of the eruption of Tonga in the entire atmosphere and near-Earth space in the upper ionosphere. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Mary Pat Fungus-Keith

Hours after the eruption ICON tracked the rising wind. They accelerated as they moved. By the time they reached the upper atmosphere, they had accelerated to 724 km / h (450 mph). These extraordinary hurricane winds disrupted the electric current high in the ionosphere. This is called an equatorial electric jet. This current flows from east to west over the magnetic equator on the day side of the planet. Usually this is disrupted only by cosmic weather caused by flashes of the sun. But the winds created by the eruption force of Tonga also affected this current and forced for a while to actually reverse its direction and sail from west to east. And not only that, but the electroreactive power surge is five times higher than the normal peak.

“It’s very strange to see that the jet has changed a lot because of something that happened on the Earth’s surface,” said Joan Wu in NASA press release about the event. She is a physicist from the University of California at Berkeley and co-authored a new study of the event. “This is something we’ve only seen before with strong geomagnetic storms.”

Learn something new about the ionosphere

In fact, scientists have tracked a disturbance similar to space weather in near-Earth space and the ionosphere. Now that they have seen these effects caused by a volcanic eruption, it adds new data to their space weather research and its impact on our planet and our technology.

“The volcano has created one of the biggest disturbances in space we’ve seen in the modern era,” said University of California, Berkeley physicist Brian Harding. He is the lead author on a document describing the consequences of the eruption. “This allows us to test the poorly understood connection between the lower atmosphere and space.”

For more information

See the first schematic animation made from a wave of atmospheric pressure made a few days after the Tongan eruption.
Learn more about ICON’s mission is hereand SWARM satellites here.
A NASA mission has found that the effects of the eruption of Tonga volcano have reached space

More about space weather:
Haystack Observatory Geospace and Atmospheric Science
NASA Space Weather page
Question about space weather: NASA scientists have the answers