Satellite mission reveals effects of Tonga volcanic eruption have reached space

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption on January 15, 2022 caused many effects, some of which are pictured here, which were felt around the world and even in space. Some of these effects, such as extreme winds and unusual electrical currents, have been captured by NASA’s ICON mission and the ESA (European Space Agency) swarm. Image not to scale. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on January 15, 2022, it sent atmospheric shock waves, sonic booms and tsunami waves around the world. Now scientists are discovering that the effects of the volcano have also reached space.

By analyzing data from NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission and ESA’s (European Space Agency) Swarm satellites, scientists found that in the hours following the eruption, winds at hurricane speed and unusual electric currents formed in the ionosphere – Earth’s electrified upper atmospheric layer at the edge of space.

“The volcano has created one of the biggest disturbances in space we’ve seen in the modern age,” said Brian Harding, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a new paper. discussing the findings. “It allows us to test the poorly understood link between the lower atmosphere and space.”

ICON was launched in 2019 to identify how Earth’s weather interacts with space’s weather – a relatively new idea supplanting previous assumptions that only the forces of the sun and space could create weather at the edge of the ionosphere. In January 2022, as the spacecraft passed over South America, it observed such a terrestrial disturbance in the ionosphere triggered by the South Pacific volcano.

“These results are an exciting look at how events on Earth can affect space weather, in addition to space weather affecting Earth,” said Jim Spann, space weather manager for the Heliophysics Division of NASA at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC “Understanding space weather holistically will ultimately help us mitigate its effects on society.”

The GOES-17 satellite captured images of an umbrella cloud generated by the underwater eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on January 15, 2022. Crescent-shaped arcing shock waves and numerous lightning strikes are also visible. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens using GOES/NOAA and NESDIS imagery

When the volcano erupted, it pushed a giant plume of gas, water vapor and dust into the sky. The explosion also created significant pressure disturbances in the atmosphere, resulting in high winds. As the winds expanded upward into thinner atmospheric layers, they began to move faster. 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 measured by the mission since its launch. launch.

In the ionosphere, extreme winds also affected electrical currents. Particles in the ionosphere regularly form an eastward-flowing electric current — called the equatorial electrojet — powered by winds from the lower atmosphere. After the eruption, the equatorial electrojet reached five times its normal peak power and drastically changed direction, flowing west for a short time.

“It’s very surprising to see the electrojet being strongly inverted by something that happened on the Earth’s surface,” said Joanne Wu, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the novella. study. “This is something we’ve only seen before with strong geomagnetic storms, which are a form of weather in space caused by particles and radiation from the sun.”

The new research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, adds to scientists’ understanding of how the ionosphere is affected by events on Earth and in space. A strong equatorial electrojet is associated with a redistribution of matter in the ionosphere, which can disrupt GPS and radio signals that are transmitted through the region.

Understanding how this complex area of ​​our atmosphere responds to strong forces from below and above is a key part of NASA’s research. NASA’s upcoming Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) mission will use a fleet of small satellites, much like ground-based weather sensors, to track electrical currents and atmospheric winds passing through the region. By better understanding what affects electrical currents in the ionosphere, scientists can be better prepared to predict serious problems caused by such disturbances.

Strong winds fuel electric fields in upper atmosphere, NASA’s ICON says

More information:
Brian J. Harding et al, Impacts of the January 2022 Tonga Volcanic Eruption on the Ionospheric Dynamo: ICON-MIGHTI and Swarm Observations of Extreme Neutral Winds and Currents, Geophysical Research Letters (2022). DOI: 10.1029/2022GL098577

Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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