The ‘mind-blowing’ sea floor changes caused by Tongan volcanic eruption

When the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted in January this year, scientists knew something extraordinary had happened.

An ash plume shot 57 kilometers into the atmosphere; shock waves rippled through the atmosphere, and the eruption triggered a tsunami that reached heights of more than 19 meters above sea level.

But masked by the waters of the Pacific Ocean, what happened beneath the surface has largely remained a mystery.

A team of oceanographers, biologists and geologists led by New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) – with the help of an uncrewed boat remotely controlled from Essex in the UK – joined forces to produce one of the clearest pictures to date of what took place underneath the water.

By comparing this newly captured data with a sea floor model from 2017, scientists at NIWA were able to calculate just how much material the volcano erupted. The volume of material displaced in an eruption is a common measure of the size of a volcanic event.

They found the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai spewed out at least 9.5 cubic kilometres of material – a third more than the team’s initial estimates.

By comparison, the 1991 eruption at Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines discharged 5.5 cubic kilometers of material and 4 cubic kilometers was erupted over Naples from Mt Vesuvius in 79AD.

“So we’re talking a truly globally massive eruption,” Mackay said.

See rotatable views and more in the article here.


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