Massive Tonga Underwater Volcano Eruption Wreaked Havoc on Satellite Signals

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A historic underwater volcanic eruption was potent enough to create plasma bubbles that meddled with radio communications in space, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

The insights from this study could pave the way to develop strategies to prevent disruptions in satellite and GPS signals on Earth and shed light on the volcanic activities on extraterrestrial planets.

Tonga Underwater Volcanic Eruption, 15 January 2022. Credit: Stuart Rankin via Flickr

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano, positioned in close proximity to Tonga’s 169 islands in the South Pacific, experienced an extraordinary eruption in January 2022. This underwater mountain’s fierce explosion led to the formation of an unprecedented volcanic plume stretching 35 miles (57 kilometers) high, causing tsunamis reaching as far as the Caribbean. The eruption proved to be the mightiest natural explosion in over a hundred years, competing with the largest nuclear bomb of the United States in terms of its strength.

Previous research had revealed that the atmospheric waves triggered by the eruption, which caused variations in air pressure, were potent enough to cause disturbances in the ionosphere – one of Earth’s highest atmospheric layers. Spanning an altitude ranging from about 50 miles to 620 miles (80 to 1,000 km), this layer is subjected to solar radiation. This exposure stimulates its molecules and atoms, generating ions.

Scientific speculation has existed for a while about the potential for volcanic activity to impact the F-region of the ionosphere. The F-region, which lies approximately 90 to 500 miles (150 to 800 km) from Earth, has the highest ion concentration within the atmosphere.

Within the equatorial zones of the ionosphere, plasma bubbles may form and cause interruptions to satellite communications and GPS signals. The question of whether terrestrial events, such as volcanic eruptions, could lead to the formation of these “equatorial plasma bubbles” has intrigued researchers for a long time.

“In the ionosphere, plasma bubbles are rarely observed,” commented Atsuki Shinbori, the lead author of the study and an atmospheric scientist at Nagoya University in Japan.

The study employed the Arase satellite of Japan to detect equatorial plasma bubbles, the Himawari-8 satellite to monitor atmospheric waves, and ground-based stations to follow ionospheric motions. After the Tonga eruption’s shockwave made contact with the ionosphere, researchers detected equatorial plasma bubbles that reached an altitude of at least 2,000 kilometers [1,240 miles], a distance much beyond the range predicted by standard models.

Interestingly, the scientists noted a sudden increase in electron density and a rise in the ionosphere’s height, even hours before the shockwave’s arrival. They hypothesized that the swift reaction could have been a result of the eruption’s atmospheric waves interacting with the ions in the ionosphere, leading to rapid energy travel along Earth’s magnetic field lines.

These findings could empower researchers with the capability to predict the occurrence of plasma bubbles linked to volcanic eruptions and other geophysical phenomena. Despite being unable to avoid the severe impacts these bubbles could have on satellite communications and GPS signals, “we will be able to alert operators of airplanes and ships that are expected to pass through the occurrence region of the plasma bubbles in the future,” added Shinbori.

Future investigations could extend beyond Earth, studying the atmospheric impact of volcanoes on distant worlds.

“With Venus shrouded by dense clouds, it’s challenging to verify the existence of active volcanoes through optical satellite observations alone,” Shinbori noted. “However, the Arase satellite’s plasma measurements could potentially confirm volcanic activity there.”

This cutting-edge research, unveiled online on May 22, offers exciting new frontiers in understanding the Earth’s atmospheric interactions and their implications on satellite communications.

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