Tonga volcano eruption put holes in the atmosphere, sent plasma bubbles to space and disrupted satellites

New details about the underwater volcano eruption that devastated Tonga in January 2022 continue to emerge. And the latest findings show that it was such a massive eruption that it had an impact all the way in space. 

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, located undersea in Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean, erupted on January 15, 2022, exploding with so much force that it was hundreds of times stronger than the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. When it exploded, it spewed debris 25 miles into the air, triggering tsunami waves.  

Months later, it was determined that it also blasted so much water that it could have filled 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, enough to potentially cause warmer temperatures on the planet. It also ignited the formation of an entirely new island

Now, a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports on Monday found that it had an impact outside the planet itself. 

Researchers from the Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research at Japan’s Nagoya University found that the air pressure waves from the eruption were so strong that they affected the Earth’s ionosphere, the layer of atmosphere just before space. The pressure caused “several holes” to form in this layer over Japan, some extending to 2,000 kilometers in space, researchers found, and also caused the formation of “equatorial plasma bubbles.” 

This graph, published by researchers at Japan’s Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research, shows how the 2022 Tonga volcano eurption impacted the atmosphere. 

Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research

“Such plasma bubbles are rarely observed in the ionosphere,” Atsuki Shinbori, the study’s lead author, told 

The holes that were put in the atmosphere also interfered with satellite communications, the study found, which is something typically caused by solar activity. Geomagnetic storms, for example, are known to disrupt satellite communications and signals at certain strengths. But with these findings, researchers said that even Earth events should be considered as disrupters in his area. 

The effects of such events can’t be presented, Shinbori told, but with enough research, “we will be able to alert operators of airplanes and ships that are expected to pass through the occurrence region of the plasma bubbles in the future.”

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