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  • Explore the impact that the huge Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption in January 2022 has had on volcanologists theories on volcanoes.

    The article below has been republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons licence CC BY-ND 4.0 and is written by Shane Cronin, Professor of Earth Sciences, University of Auckland. It was originally published under the title A year on, we know why the Tongan eruption was so violent. It’s a wake-up call to watch other submarine volcanoes

    The Kingdom of Tonga exploded into global news on 15 January 2023 with one of the most spectacular and violent volcanic eruptions ever seen.

    Remarkably, it was caused by a volcano that lies under hundreds of metres of seawater. The event shocked the public and volcano scientists alike.

    Was this a new type of eruption we’ve never seen before? Was it a wake-up call to pay more attention to threats from submarine volcanoes around the world?

    The answer is yes to both questions.

    The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano was a little-known seamount along a chain of 20 similar volcanoes that make up the Tongan part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

    We know a lot about surface volcanoes along this ring, including Mount St Helens in the US, Mount Fuji in Japan and Gunung Merapi of Indonesia. But we know very little about the hundreds of submarine volcanoes around it.

    Tongan eruption breaks records

    The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption has firmly established itself in the record books with the highest ash plume ever measured and a 58 km aerosol cloud “overshoot” that touched space beyond the mesosphere. It also triggered the largest number of lightning bolts recorded for any type of natural event.

    The injection of large amounts of water vapour into the outer atmosphere, along with “sonic booms” (atmospheric pressure waves) and tsunami that travelled the entire world, set new benchmarks for volcanic phenomena.

    The GIF above shows the volcanic eruption on 15 January 2015 as viewed by a satellite, courtesy of NOAA.

    COVID hampered access to Tonga during the eruption and its aftermath, but local scientists and an international scientific collaborative effort helped us discover what drove its extreme violence.

    Eruption creates a giant hole

    A team from the Tongan Geological Services and the University of Auckland used a multi-beam sonar mapping system to precisely measure the shape of the volcano, just three months after the January blast.

    We were astonished to find the rim of the vast submarine volcano was intact, but the formerly 6 km diameter flat top of the submarine cone was rent by a hole 4 km wide and almost 1 km deep.

    This is known as a caldera and happens when the central part of the volcano collapses in on itself after magma is rapidly “pumped out”. We calculate over 7.1 cubic kilometres of magma was ejected. It is almost impossible to envisage, but if we wanted to refill the caldera, it would take one billion truck loads.

    It is hard to explain the physics of the Hunga eruption, even with the large magma volume and its interaction with seawater. We need other driving forces to explain, especially the climactic first hour of the eruption.

    Mixed magmas lead to chain reaction

    Only when we examined the texture and chemistry of the erupted particles (volcanic ash) did we see clues about the event’s violence. Different magmas were intimately mixed and mingled before the eruption, with contrasts visible at a micron to centimetre scale.

    Isotopic “fingerprinting” using lead, neodymium, uranium and strontium shows at least three different magma sources were involved. Radium isotope analysis shows two magma bodies were older and resident in the middle of the Earth’s crust, before being joined by a new, younger one shortly before the eruption.

    The mingling of magmas caused a strong reaction, driving water and other so-called “volatile elements” out of solution and into gas. This creates bubbles and an expanding magma foam, pushing the magma out vigorously at the onset of eruption.

    This intermediate or andesite composition has low viscosity. It means magma can be rapidly forced out through narrow cracks in the rock. Hence, there was an extremely rapid tapping of magma from 5-10 km below the volcano, leading to sudden step-wise collapses of the caldera.

    The caldera collapse led to a chain reaction because seawater suddenly drained through cracks and faults and encountered magma rising from depth in the volcano. The resulting high-pressure direct contact of water with magma at more than 1150℃ caused two high-intensity explosions around 30 and 45 minutes into the eruption. Each explosion further decompressed the magma below, continuing the chain reaction by amplifying bubble growth and magma rise.

    After about an hour, the central eruption plume lost energy and the eruption moved to a lower-elevation ejection of particles in a concentric curtain-like pattern around the volcano.

    This less focused phase of eruption led to widespread pyroclastic flows – hot and fast-flowing clouds of gas, ash and fragments of rock – that collapsed into the ocean and caused submarine density currents. These damaged vast lengths of the international and domestic data cables, cutting Tonga off from the rest of the world.

    Unanswered questions and challenges

    Even after long analysis of a growing body of eyewitness accounts, there are still major unanswered questions about this eruption.

    The most important is what led to the largest local tsunami – an 18-20 m-high wave that struck most of the central Tongan islands around an hour into the eruption. Earlier tsunami are well linked to the two large explosions at around 30 and 45 minutes into the eruption. Currently, the best candidate for the largest tsunami is the collapse of the caldera itself, which caused seawater to rush back into the new cavity.

    This event has parallels only to the great 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia and has changed our perspective of the potential hazards from shallow submarine volcanoes. Work has begun on improving volcanic monitoring in Tonga using onshore and offshore seismic sensors along with infrasound sensors and a range of satellite observation tools.

    All of these monitoring methods are expensive and difficult compared to land-based volcanoes. Despite the enormous expense of submarine research vessels, intensive efforts are underway to identify other volcanoes around the world that pose Hunga-like threats.

    Related content

    Just after the Tongan volcanic eruption in January 2022 Professor Shane Cronin wrote this article for The Conversation Why the volcanic eruption in Tonga was so violent, and what to expect next.

    We have a wide range of related resources curated in these handy introductory articles below:

    Realistic contexts connect students to authentic scientific processes and purposes. It’s all explained in Volcanoes resources – planning pathways.

    The PLD article Children making evidence-based decisions about volcanic risk details how students were able to use science knowledge to make decisions and take action to plan for natural disaster emergencies.

    See our Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapa Pinterest board for more content relevant to this eruption.

    Measuring instruments looks at some of the wide range of scientific equipment used to investigate the ocean, including multibeam sonar systems.

    Activity ideas

    Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapa is a caldera volcano. The Rotorua geothermal area was formed by a massive caldera. Watch the Rotorua caldera formation animation then go outside and conduct the student activity Calderas in the sandpit.

    Go on a volcano hunt covering the length of Aotearoa, and discover how scientists and others help us stay safe in these shaky isles with the activities Watching Rangitoto erupt, Who's on your team? and Home disaster kit.

    In the activity, Multibeam seafloor survey students create a model seafloor and create a map of it through taking depth readings.

    Useful links

    Find out more about some of the research mentioned in this article:

    Tracking the 2022 Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai Aerosol Cloud in the Upper and Middle Stratosphere Using Space-Based Observations, G. Taha, et al, Geophysical Research Letters Vol 49, Issue 19, 16 October 2022.

    The Total Lightning Statistics 2022 annual report highlights and explains the most remarkable lighting events and trends of the year with comprehensive rankings, charts, and maps of lightning activity in 2022.

    Analysis and Impact of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai Stratospheric Water Vapor Plume, M. R. Schoeber et al, Geophysical Research Letters Vo 49, Issue 20, 28 October 2022.

    Atmospheric waves and global seismoacoustic observations of the January 2022 Hunga eruption, Tonga, Robin S. Matoza et al, Science, Vol 377, Issue 6601, 12 May 2022.

    Tsunami Runup and Inundation in Tonga from the January 2022 Eruption of Hunga Volcano , Borrero, J.C., etc a, Pure and Applied Geophysics (2022).

    A week after the eruption, The Conversation published this article, Tonga eruption was so intense, it caused the atmosphere to ring like a bell.

    Read about Why are earthquakes common in the Pacific Ring of Fire?.

    Follow Professor Shane Cronin on Twitter at @scronin70.


    This article was written by Shane Cronin. Professor of Earth Sciences, University of Auckland. The article was originally published in The Conversation, 13 January 2023. Read the original article titled A year on, we know why the Tongan eruption was so violent. It’s a wake-up call to watch other submarine volcanoes.

    The Conversation

      Published 8 March 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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