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Tonga Volcano Plume Reached the Mesosphere

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 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.Before the Tonga eruption, the most significant 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 animation above shows a stereo view of the Tonga eruption plume as it rose, evolved, and dispersed over 13 hours on January 15, 2022.

The animation was built from infrared observations acquired every 10 minutes by GOES-17 and Himawari-8. According to these observations, the initial blast rapidly rose from the ocean surface to 58 kilometers in about 30 minutes.THE atmospheric scientists calculate cloud height using infrared instruments to measure a cloud’s temperature and then compare it with model simulations of temperature and altitude. However, this method assumes that temperatures decrease at higher altitudes—which is true in the troposphere but not necessarily in the middle and upper layers of the atmosphere.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai is in the Pacific Ocean roughly midway between Himawari-8, which is in geostationary orbit at a longitude of 140.7° East, and GOES-17, in geostationary orbit at 137.2° West. “From the two angles of the satellites, we were able to recreate a three-dimensional picture of the clouds,” explained Konstantin Khlopenkov, a scientist on the NASA Langley team.

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