Hunga volcano generated incredible atmospheric waves

A different undersea volcano erupts off the coast of Tonga, sending plumes of steam, ash, and smoke into the air on March 18, 2009 off the coast of Nuku'Alofa, Tonga. (Credit: Dana Stephenson/Getty Images)

Researchers report the first comprehensive account of the Hunga volcano eruption’s atmospheric waves.

The Hunga volcano ushered in 2022 with a bang, devastating the island nation of Tonga and sending aid agencies, and Earth scientists, into a flurry of activity. It had been nearly 140 years since an eruption of this scale shook the Earth.

Robin Matoza of the University of California, Santa Barbara led a team of scientists to characterize the eruption’s atmospheric waves, the strongest recorded from a volcano since the 1883 Krakatau eruption.

The team’s work, compiled in an unusually short amount of time, details the size of the waves originating from the eruption, which the authors find were on par with those from Krakatau. The data also provide exceptional resolution of the evolving wavefield compared to what was available from the historic event. The paper appears in the journal Science.

concentric circles in lower left of earth; other 2/3 of the sphere are in darkness
Just before nightfall reached Tonga, the Hunga eruption (lower left) sent atmospheric waves around the globe. The atmospheric waves generated by the Hunga, Tonga eruption from the analysis performed in the paper on the 6.2 micron channel superimposed on the true color composition from GOES-17 geostationary satellite (background image composition generated with satpy). (Credit: Jean-Marie Lalande via UC Santa Barbara)

Booms heard in Alaska

Early evidence suggests that an eruption January 14 sunk the volcano’s main vent below sea level, priming the massive explosion the following day. The January 15 eruption generated a variety of different atmospheric waves, including booms heard 6,200 miles away in Alaska. It also created a pulse that caused the unusual occurrence of a tsunami-like disturbance an hour before the actual seismically driven tsunami began.

“I heard the sounds, but at the time definitely did not think it was from a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific.”

“This atmospheric waves event was unprecedented in the modern geophysical record,” says Matoza, an associate professor in the earth science department.

The Hunga volcanic eruption has provided unprecedented insight into the behavior of a variety of atmospheric wave types. “The atmospheric waves were recorded globally across a wide frequency band,” says coauthor David Fee at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. “And by studying this remarkable dataset we will better understand acoustic and atmospheric wave generation, propagation, and recording.

“This has implications for monitoring nuclear explosions, volcanoes, earthquakes, and a variety of other phenomena,” Fee continues. “Our hope is that we will be better able to monitor volcanic eruptions and tsunamis by understanding the atmospheric waves from this eruption.”

Lamb waves

The researchers were most interested in the behavior of an atmospheric wave known as a Lamb wave, which is the dominant pressure wave produced by the eruption. These are longitudinal pressure waves, much like sound waves, but of particularly low frequency. Such low frequency, in fact, that the effects of gravity must be taken into account. Lamb waves are associated with the largest atmospheric explosions, such as large eruptions and nuclear detonations, though the wave characteristics differ between these two sources. They can last from minutes to several hours.

After the eruption, the waves traveled along Earth’s surface and circled the planet in one direction four times and in the opposite direction three times, the authors recorded. This was the same as scientists observed in the 1883 Krakatau eruption. The Lamb wave also reached into Earth’s ionosphere, rising at 700 mph to an altitude of about 280 miles.

“Lamb waves are rare. We have very few high-quality observations of them,” Fee says. “By understanding the Lamb wave, we can better understand the source and eruption. It is linked to the tsunami and volcanic plume generation and is also likely related to the higher-frequency infrasound and acoustic waves from the eruption.”

The Lamb wave consisted of at least two pulses near the volcano. The first had a seven- to 10-minute pressure increase followed by a second and larger compression and subsequent long pressure decrease.

Atmospheric waves for the ages

A major difference between the accounts of Hunga’s Lamb waves versus Krakatau’s is the amount and quality of data scientists were able to gather. “We have more than a century of advances in instrumentation technology and global sensor density,” Matoza says. “So the 2022 Hunga event provided an unparalleled global dataset for an explosion event of this size.”

Scientists noted other findings about atmospheric waves associated with the eruption, including remarkable long-range infrasound—sounds too low in frequency to be heard by humans. Infrasound arrived after the Lamb wave and was followed by audible sounds in some regions.

Audible sounds reached Alaska, about 6,200 miles from the volcano, where they were heard around the state as repeated booms. “I heard the sounds,” Fee recalls, “but at the time definitely did not think it was from a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific.”

The scientists believe the sounds heard in Alaska couldn’t have originated in Hunga. While there’s still much to learn, it’s clear that standard sound models cannot explain how audible sounds propagated over such extreme distances. “We interpreted that they were generated somewhere along the path by nonlinear effects,” Matoza explains.

“There is a long list of possible follow-up studies examining the many different aspects of these signals in more detail,” he says. “As a community, we will be working further on this event for years.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara, Rod Boyce for University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute