Tongan volcano eruption ‘largest ever recorded,’ New Zealand scientists say

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“It was like a shotgun blast directly into the sky,” said one marine geologist.

ByEmma Ogao
November 21, 2022, 10:25 PM

A New Zealand-led team of marine geologists investigating an underwater volcano that erupted on Jan. 15 in the Tongan archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean have found that it was the “largest ever recorded” with modern equipment.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which triggered a tsunami and a sonic boom that twice-circled the globe, was captured in dramatic satellite imagery which showed huge cloud of ash and steam thrust into the atmosphere.

MORE: Photos capture devastation from Tonga volcano eruption

A team of oceanographers, scientists and marine geologists headed by the New Zealand National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), with assistance from a robot boat remotely operated in the UK by Sea-Kit International, have conducted the “fullest investigation yet” into the underwater Tongan volcano. They discovered that almost 10 cubic kilometres of seafloor was displaced — the equivalent of 2.6 million Olympic-sized pools.

FILE PHOTO: The eruption on Jan. 15, 2022, of an underwater volcano off Tonga, which triggered a tsunami warning for several South Pacific island nations, is seen in an image from the NOAA GOES-West satellite taken.
The eruption on Jan. 15, 2022, of an underwater volcano off Tonga, which triggered a tsunami warning for several South Pacific island nations, is seen in an image from the NOAA GOES-West satellite taken.
Cira/noaa/via Reuters

“The eruption reached record heights, being the first we’ve ever seen to break through into the mesosphere,” said Kevin Mackay, NWA marine geologist. “It was like a shotgun blast directly into the sky.”

“While this eruption was large, one of the biggest since Krakatoa in 1883, there have been others of similar magnitude since then that didn’t behave in the same way. The difference here is that it’s an underwater volcano and its also part of the reason we got such big tsunami waves,” added Mackay.

MORE: Tonga government releases 1st statement since volcanic blast, described huge mushroom plume

The team of scientists also unravelled new information into the volcano’s underwater pyroclastic flows — a mixture of hot, dense volcanic ash, lava fragments and gas ejected from the volcano — through examining sediment debris found 80 km away.

“The sheer force of the flows is astonishing — we saw deposits in valleys beyond the volcano, which is where the international cable lies, meaning they had enough power to flow uphill over huge ridges and then back down again,” said Dr Emily Lane, Principal NIWA scientist.

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