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NASA-ESA satellites find Tonga’s volcanic eruption surprisingly changed Earth’s atmosphere

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcano, which made global headlines after its massive eruption on January 15 this year, saw its effects reach outer space, NASA discovered. The American space agency says that its Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Swarm satellites found that the effects reached the edge of Earth’s atmosphere just a few hours after the underwater eruption. These effects became evident when the two missions found hurricane-speed winds and unusual electric currents formed in the ionosphere- Earth’s electrified upper atmospheric layer. Tap here to read more about Tonga’s eruption.

Effects of Tonga eruption reach outer space

(NASA’s illustration of Tonga volcanic eruption effects; Image: NASA)

The atmosphere changing effects were caught by NASA’s ICON, which was launched in 2019 to identify how Earth’s weather interacts with weather from space. Brian Harding, from the University of California and the lead author of the observational study said in a statement that the Tonga Volcano in the South Pacific created one of the largest disturbances in space seen in the modern era. “It is allowing us to test the poorly understood connection between the lower atmosphere and space”, he added. 

Moreover, Jim Spann, space weather lead for NASA’s Heliophysics Division, said that the findings show how events on Earth can affect weather in space adding that a holistic understanding of space weather “will ultimately help us mitigate its effects on society”.

The satellites observing the massive phenomenon captured giant plumes of gases, water vapor, and dust being pushed into the sky. Scientists compiling the new findings also reported that the explosion created large pressure disturbances in the atmosphere leading to strong winds reaching speeds up to 724 kmph. Notably, the winds started moving faster as they expanded upwards into thinner atmospheric layers. What’s more, is that the explosion also flipped the direction of the flow of particles in the ionosphere, which is always due east. These particles form the electric current – called the equatorial electrojet – and are powered by winds in the lower atmosphere.

The scientists have published their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and stated that it has improved their understanding of how the ionosphere is affected by events on the ground as well as from space.

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