From the surprise eruption of Hunga Tong-Hunga Ha’apai early in the year, to gaining further insight into volcano threat detection and alert systems, volcanoes have played a major part in our understanding of the Earth and how we can successfully continue to live on it.
Here are ten ground-breaking ways that volcanoes shook your world this year.
Underwater Volcano goes boom!
January 15 saw one of the largest eruptions in the past few decades, with the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano blasting its way into the stratosphere and sending a shockwave around the globe – both quite literally.
Reports suggested that three people were killed when the underwater volcano triggered a tsunami, putting coastal communities on alert. It also damaged Tonga’s only submarine cable and blanketed the surrounding islands in ash, resulting in blackouts of both communication and visibility and hampering efforts to understand the impact of the eruption and state of the volcano.
Sifting through the ash and the data
As the year continued, scientists began to sift through the data produced by the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption.
Records of a large ‘thump’ flowed in from Fiji – some 700 km away – and also from instruments distributed around the world designed to monitor for nuclear testing events.
Researchers pieced together the information, rating the volcanic eruption as at least a VEI-6 (Volcanic Explosivity Index), putting it in the same category as the 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo in The Philippines and Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883.
Some records broken, others left untouched
By the end of the year, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption was awarded several firsts. The volcanic plume was the highest ever recorded and the first to have broken through the mesosphere – a layer of atmosphere 50-85 km up and inaccessible to weather balloons and commercial jets.
Despite Tonga’s record-breaking jet, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora eruption of 1815 took out the title of largest eruption in recent history, with around 1,000 MT of energy released. Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883, which devastated Indonesia and killed tens of thousands, is estimated to have released around 200 MT, while the Tongan volcano drew a distant third with Mount Pinatubo in The Philippines were around two to three times smaller than that.
Not content with Tonga’s supremacy over the Pacific, the Hawaiian volcano, Mauna Loa, began to rumble, producing rivers of lava over the next few weeks.
Better understanding of hazards needed
With the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai fresh in everyone’s minds, volcanologist Heather Handley brought attention to the relatively blasé attitudes of the average Aussie when it came to assessing the risk of volcanoes to the Australian way of life.
Identifying two potentially volcanically active regions on mainland Australia, Handley discusses the possibility of an eruption either at home or abroad, noting, ultimately, we are woefully underprepared for the future.
AI for rapid warning systems
Spurred on by the tragic eruption of Whakaari/White Island in New Zealand in 2019 which claimed the lives of 22 people, two volcanologists proposed a new rapid warning system based on machine learning.
Comparing visual data from three New Zealand volcanoes pre-eruption, Whakaari, Ruapeu and Tongariro, the researchers noticed a seal forming at the top of the volcano ultimately resulting in a building of pressure within the volcanic system. Artificial intelligence was able to identify the formation of this seal, potentially allowing for a rapid warning system which could alert authorities up to three weeks before an eruption event occurs.
Breath testing for volcano health
Evidence for an imminent eruption might be as ‘simple’ as a volcano breath test.
By collecting gasses emanating from fumaroles – holes and cracks in the Earth’s surface that vent hot air from the magma beneath our feet – a group of scientists has identified key markers of imminent volcanic eruption.
Like a blood or breath test might give a doctor insight into your health, the researchers can identify changes in the ‘foaminess’ of the magma and analyse the risk of eruption.
Volcanoes form more clouds and may cool the planet slightly
The effect of aerosols – tiny liquid or solid droplets suspended in air – came into focus for researchers who looked at how volcanic eruptions such as that at Holuhraun in Iceland in 2014 affected the climate and contributed to global warming.
The study dismissed previous findings – that aerosols cool clouds (and hence have a slight cooling effect) due to increasing their brightness and reflectivity of sunlight – uncovering that 60% of the climate cooling effect is due to the actual increase in cloud cover.
Supervolcanic eruptions caused severe mass extinctions
Looking back into the past, researchers linked four of the five most severe mass extinctions with supervolcanoes, warning that current carbon dioxide (CO2) emission rates outstrip by 200 times that of the deadliest extinction event in history.
The ‘Great Dying’ occurred around 252 million years ago and wiped out at least 90% of all species on Earth and although current levels of CO2 have many researchers concerned, there is a glimmer of hope.
Ancient microbial life on Mars
An ultra-acidic lake in the centre of a Costa Rican volcano is providing insight into how ancient microbial life might have existed on Mars. Heated by underground magma, the lake can swing from tolerable to boiling in a matter of hours, however certain microbes are found to thrive in these hostile conditions.
Life on Earth may have begun in conditions such as this, and some researchers believe the same may be true of Mars, suggesting that instead of looking at lakes and streams, searches for life on the Red Planet should focus on unearthing ancient hot springs.
Moon volcanoes to sustain future life
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder in the US have modelled the Moon’s ancient volcanic systems to uncover likely areas of sheets of ice at our natural satellite’s polar regions.
Between two and four billion years ago, enormous lunar volcanoes were responsible for spouting carbon monoxide and water vapour, which may have formed an atmosphere, before freezing to form the sheet ice.
In a beautiful convergence of ancient history and the future to come, this water ice may be a key component of humankind’s efforts to revisit the Moon and establish a long-term base there.
Originally published by Cosmos as Ten ground-breaking ways volcanoes shook your world in 2022
Clare Kenyon is a science journalist for Cosmos. An ex-high school teacher, she is currently wrangling the death throes of her PhD in astrophysics, has a Masters in astronomy and another in education. Clare also has diplomas in music and criminology and a graduate certificate of leadership and learning.
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