New satellite data shows Tonga eruption reached space

  • The effects of the Tonga volcano eruption reached into space, according to NASA satellite data.
  • The eruption caused gale-force winds and unusual electrical currents in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.
  • The researchers said it was one of the largest disturbances in space in modern history.

When an undersea volcano erupted on January 15 near the Pacific island nation of Tonga, it sent massive shockwaves and fast-moving tsunamis around the world. Now scientists are beginning to understand just how big the Tonga volcano blew up.

The eruption not only covered much of Tonga in a plume of ash, destroyed homes and triggered a tsunami that killed at least three people, but it reached the edge of space, according to newly released NASA satellite data. “The volcano created one of the largest disturbances in space that we have seen in the modern era,” Brian Harding, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a new paper analyzing the findings, said in a statement.

For the study, published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers used satellite data from NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, and the European Space Agency. They found that a post-eruption plume of gas and particles caused gale-force winds and unusual electrical currents in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, also known as the ionosphere.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption on January 15, 2022 caused many effects, some illustrated here, that were felt around the world and even in space.  Some of these effects, such as extreme winds and unusual electrical currents, were detected by NASA's ICON mission and ESA's (European Space Agency) Swarm.  Image not to scale.

The Tonga eruption on January 15, 2022 caused effects around the world and in space. NASA and the European Space Agency’s ICON mission detected extreme winds and unusual electrical currents. Image not to scale.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith


The data showed that the volcano sent strong winds into Earth’s thinnest atmospheric layers, the researchers said, where they picked up speed. “Upon reaching the ionosphere and the edge of space, ICON recorded wind speeds of up to 450 mph, making them the strongest winds below 120 miles in altitude measured by the mission since launch,” the agency said. agency in a statement. (Earth’s strongest hurricanes reach top wind speeds of around 200 miles per hour.)

Once in the upper atmosphere, the strong winds also affected a thin electric current flowing from east to west called the equatorial electrojet. After the eruption, the current increased to five times its usual strength and changed direction several times.

“The equatorial electrojet is a very strong electrical current of hundreds of kilowatts that exists in a narrow band near the equator,” Harding told Space.com. “Usually it flows eastward and sometimes geomagnetic storms can reverse it. But this was the first time we’ve seen it completely reverse and strengthen because of something that happened on the ground.”

The findings add to scientists’ knowledge of how events on Earth can affect weather in space, which is poorly understood. In order to collect more data and decipher that relationship, NASA plans to send a fleet of small satellites into Earth’s upper atmosphere as part of its upcoming Geospatial Dynamics Constellation.

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