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Massive Tonga Volcano Plume Reached the Mesosphere – 38 Miles Into the Atmosphere

  When an underwater volcano erupted near the small, uninhabited island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai in January 2022, two weath...

 


When an underwater volcano erupted near the small, uninhabited island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai in January 2022, two weather satellites were uniquely positioned to observe the height and breadth of the plume. Together they captured what is likely the highest plume in the satellite record.

Scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center analyzed data from NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 17 (GOES-17) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Himawari-8, which both operate in geostationary orbit and carry very similar imaging instruments. The team calculated that the plume from the January 15 volcanic eruption rose to 58 kilometers (36 miles) at its highest point. Gas, steam, and ash from the volcano reached the mesosphere, the third layer of the atmosphere.

Prior to the Tonga eruption, the largest known volcanic plume in the satellite era came from Mount Pinatubo, which spewed ash and aerosols up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) into the air above the Philippines in 1991. The Tonga plume was 1.5 times the height of the Pinatubo plume.

“The intensity of this event far exceeds that of any storm cloud I have ever studied,” said Kristopher Bedka, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Langley who specializes in studying extreme storms. “We are fortunate that it was viewed so well by our latest generation of geostationary satellites and we can use this data in innovative ways to document its evolution.”


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