Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore space with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific advances, and more. CNN — In January, when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted underwater, columns of ash and water broke through the third layer of Earth’s atmosphere. It was a record-breaking volcanic column and reached the mesosphere, where meteors and meteorites would normally decompose and burn in our atmosphere. The mesosphere, about 50 to 80 km (31 to 50 miles) above the Earth’s surface, lies above the troposphere and stratosphere and below the other two layers. (The stratosphere and mesosphere are dry layers of the atmosphere.) The volcanic column reached an altitude of 57 km. It broke previous records, such as the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines (40 km) and the 1982 El Chihon eruption in Mexico (31 km). Researchers used images captured by satellites passing through the eruption point to determine the height of the smoke. On January 15, an eruption occurred in the South Pacific Ocean of the Tonga Islands with three geostationary satellites. The findings of the study were published Thursday in the journal Science. Previous detections by NASA satellites have shown that towering columns sent to the upper layers of the atmosphere contain enough water to fill 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Understanding the height of the smoke could help researchers study the possible effects of eruptions on global climate. Determining the height of a feather has been a challenge for researchers. In general, scientists can measure the height of a column by studying its temperature. Study co-author Dr Simon Proud of RAL Space and researchers at the National Earth Observation Center and University said the colder the column, the higher it was. of Oxford. However, this method could not be applied to the Tonga event due to the violent nature of the Tonga volcanic eruption. “The eruption pushes up through the troposphere, the layer of atmosphere we live in,” Proud said in an email, “so it warms up again as the atmosphere goes up.” “We had to devise a different approach, using some pattern matching techniques to calculate the different times and elevations provided by weather satellites located on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. This has only recently become possible because only 10 years ago, there was no satellite technology in space.” The team relates the “parallax effect” to determine the height of the column by comparing the difference in the shape of the column at different angles captured by the weather satellite. The satellite recorded the dramatic changes in the column as it rose from the sea by taking images every 10 minutes. The images reflected the differences in the position of the pillars from different viewpoints. Proud said the eruption “turned from nothing to a tower of ash and clouds 57 kilometers high in 30 minutes.” The team members also noticed a sudden change at the top of the blast column that surprised them. “After the first big explosion at 57 km, the central dome of the column collapsed inward, and after a while another column appeared,” Proud said. “I didn’t expect that to happen.” The amount of water that volcanoes release into the atmosphere is expected to temporarily warm the Earth. “This technique allows us to determine not only the maximum height of the smoke, but also various levels of the atmosphere from which the volcanic material was emitted,” said study co-author Dr. Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics at Oxford University via email. Knowing the composition and height of the pillars tells us how much ice was sent into the stratosphere and where the ash particles were ejected. As ash can cause jet engine failure, height is also very important for aviation safety, so it is important to avoid ash columns. Column height is another detail known as one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions ever recorded. A tsunami and shockwaves rippled around the world when an undersea volcano erupted 65 kilometers north of Tonga’s capital. Research is underway to determine why the eruption was so powerful, but it may have occurred underwater. The heat of the explosion vaporized the water, Proud said, and “created a much more powerful steam eruption than a normal volcanic eruption.” “Examples such as the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption show that magma-seawater interactions play an important role in creating explosive eruptions that can inject volcanic material at extreme altitudes,” Prata added. Next, researchers want to understand why the smoke is so high, its composition and its lasting impact on global climate. “When people think of volcanic pillars, they often think of ash,” Prata said. “But preliminary work on this case shows that there was a significant percentage of ice in the pillars. We also found that sulfur dioxide and sulfate aerosols formed quickly after the eruption occurred. We know that the amount of is quite small.” In this study, Proud intends to use multi-satellite elevation technology to generate automatic alerts for severe storms and volcanic eruptions.
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