Tonga’s Incredible Underwater Volcano Eruption Seen From Space

An undersea volcano erupted near the Pacific island of Tonga, and several satellites caught the incredible explosion in action. The blast of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano created a  plume of ash, steam and gas mushrooming above the Pacific Ocean, with a quickly expanding shockwave visible from orbit. Japan’s Himawari-8 weather satellite recorded this dramatic video:

Each frame in this video is less than 10 minutes long, so the plume expanded quickly. Some experts estimated the shockwave expanded at an amazing 800 – 950 kph (500-600 mph.)

NASA’s GOES-17 satellite also captured this view:

The Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano is located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa. In late 2014 and early 2015, a series of eruptions in the area created a small new island. While this is a small volcanic island, below the ocean the volcano is huge: around 1.8 km high and 20km wide.

And now, follow-up images of today’s eruption appear to show the small volcanic island was basically blown in two. The volcano has been rumbling and spewing small amounts of ash since late in December 2021, but today’s eruption was one of the largest ever for this volcano. This was the sixth time this volcano has erupted in the last 110 years.  

Because of satellite imagery, it’s amazing how quickly this story has progressed. Conversations between geologists and volcanologists on social media have been interesting to monitor. One of the big stories here is just how accessible all this information is, thanks to information provided by the Earth orbiting satellites. As several people have noted, events like this are why we invest in space: we get greater insights about our planet, we know where and when help is needed, and can make forecasts or provide warnings when natural disasters and catastrophes take place.

Tonga, home to about 105,000 people, could be in dire need of help. The island is quite flat, leaving people with little chance to evacuate to higher ground. The Associated Press reported that communications with Tonga was cut off shortly after the volcanic eruption.

The video below is from Fiji, about 470 miles away and includes an incredibly loud sonic boom heard from the shockwave. Reports of sonic booms were reported as far away as New Zealand, Alaska and Canada — thousands of miles away from the eruption. Tsunami advisories were issued for Tonga, as well as for Japan, Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast. Some flooding in southern California has been reported.

Volcanic experts will certainly be following up on this eye-popping explosion, we’ll keep you posted as new information arises.