Recent volcano explosion in Tonga, recorded highest plume that soared higher into Earth’s atmosphere

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The powerful January 15 underwater eruption of Tonga’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in the South Pacific produced a plume that soared higher into Earth’s atmosphere than any other on record – about 57 km – as it extended more than halfway to space, researchers said on Thursday.

The white-grayish plume unleashed by the eruption in the Polynesian archipelago became the first one documented to have penetrated a frigid layer of the atmosphere called the mesosphere, according to scientists who employed a novel technique using multiple satellite images to measure its height.

The plume was composed primarily of water with some ash and sulphur dioxide mixed in, said atmospheric scientist Simon Proud, lead author of the research published in the journal Science. Eruptions from land-based volcanoes tend to have more ash and sulfur dioxide and less water.

The deafening eruption sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and produced an atmospheric wave that traveled several times around the world.

“To me, what was impressive is how quickly the eruption happened. It went from nothing to a 57-km high cloud in just 30 minutes. I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like to see from the ground,” said Proud, a fellow at Britain’s National Centre for Earth Observation working at the University of Oxford and STFC RAL Space.

“Something that fascinated me was the dome-like structure in the center of the umbrella plume. I’ve never seen something like that before,” added Oxford atmospheric scientist and study co-author Andrew Prata.

Damage and loss of life – six dead – was relatively low due to the eruption’s remote location, though it did obliterate a small and uninhabited island. Tonga is an archipelago of 176 islands with a population of just over 100,000 people, situated southeast of Fiji and just west of the international dateline.