The massive volcanic explosion that obliterated the young island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai in Tonga on January 15, 2022 stunned volcanologists and experts around the world. “This is by far the highest volcanic plume we’ve ever measured with CALIPSO,” said Jason Tackett, a researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center, as reported in NASA’s Earth Observatory article. Tonga is a nation of more than 150 islands with less than 100,000 inhabitants living on 35 of the islands.
Although earthquakes, and volcanic activity and eruptions, are common along the Ring of Fire — a massive tectonic belt that stretches around the rim of the Pacific Ocean in a sweeping arch from the Eastern shore of Australia up to Japan, across to Northwest Canada, the Western US coastline, Central America and down along the South American coast. The force of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai explosion was extraordinary. News reports assert that no one could have anticipated this. James Garvin, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center chief scientist told NPR: “They weren’t ash — they were solid rock, blown to bits,” he says. “It was quite amazing to see that happen.”
The blast abruptly cut off all communication with Tonga and we’re only just beginning to learn of the country’s fate.
“All agriculture is ruined.”Lord Fakafanua, Speaker of the House
The Force. The violent explosion was so powerful, it was picked up by NASA satellite and shocked the world with its extraordinary breadth, stretching 300 miles in diameter. According to The Pilot, “This was a rare disturbance…Eruptions this violent only occur once every 1,000 years.” Scientists speculate that the strength of the eruption had something to do with sea water seeping into the magma causing it to be much more explosive than typical volcanic eruptions. Water gets trapped. It heats up and is vaporized until it eventually explodes.
- It was so destructive that the middle section of the volcanic island completely collapsed.
- James Garvin told NPR that the explosion was equivalent to 10 megatons of TNT, 500 times the force of the World War II nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
- It created atmospheric shock waves.
- Materials from the explosion were injected 19 miles high into the air and penetrated the stratosphere, with trace amounts reaching as high as 24.7 miles.
- Triggered tsunamis that hit multiple countries thousands of miles away: Canada, US, Peru, and Japan.
- Sonic boom so loud it could be heard in Alaska, the UK and India.
- Loudest event anywhere on Earth in the past 100 years.
The Lightning. According to The Pilot, the staggering volume of lightning associated with the Tongo volcano has never been seen before.
- 200,000 lightning strikes in one hour.
- Friction created by the ash and dust found in the soaring plumes ignites and forms lightning bolts.
- Hot ash tracks up the plume and reaches the cold atmosphere which creates even more lightning.
- The drier the ash, the more lightning will occur.
- Presence of lightning is increased exponentially by the existence of water in the magma. The unprecedented volume of lightning associated with this particular volcano confirms the rarely seen water in the magma.
- All the homes on Tonga’s Mango Island were destroyed. Flooded coastlines in the Pacific from West Canada, the US, South America all the way across to Japan.
- 6,000 barrel oil spill off the coast of Peru caused an ecological disaster that has killed thousands of wildlife covered by oil. Peru’s foreign minister is asking Repsol to compensate all the fishermen who have lost their livelihoods due to the spill.
- Flooding in Santa Cruz, California went viral on social media.
- There are always “miracles”: Lsala Folau, a 57 year old disabled man was swept out to sea when the huge tsunami wave knocked him off his ladder while painting his house. He swam nearly 5 miles, and after 27 hours, he reached the large island of Tongatapu, per The Telegraph.
Climate and the environmental impact.
- The sulfur dioxide emitted during volcanic eruptions that reaches the stratosphere can cool the planet for months, and in some cases, as we saw in the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991, can cool the planet by 1º for up to a year.
- There are likely a number of scientists who might dream of monthly large-scale volcanic eruptions as a short term fix to our climate crisis. But apparently, despite it’s strength, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai explosion isn’t projected to impact our current state of overheating. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, the Tonga eruption only emitted .4 teragrams of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, nowhere close to the 5 teragramsneeded to cool the planet.
- The higher water levels, a result of global warming, certainly caused much higher waves, and much more flooding along global coastlines than would have otherwise been the case.
- The sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide released in the eruption will result in acid rain across the region that will result in catastrophic crop loss.
- The oil spill that destroyed beaches along Peru’s shoreline near Lima will take a great deal of painstaking effort and time to clean up.
In the months that follow, scientists will be studying the remaining fragments of what once was the volcanic island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. This uninhabited volcanic island had a very short existence, emerging from the sea in 2015 following a century of volcanic eruptions. There is a lot to learn from this unusual and extreme natural event. Stay tuned fro more information.
“Nature has no boundaries.”The Pilot
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