Tonga eruption may be a record-breaker

In this handout photo provided by the New Zealand Defense Force, an aerial view from a P-3K2 Orion surveillance flight of heavy ash fall on January 17, 2022 Nomuka, Tonga. (Credit: New Zealand Defense Force via Getty Images)

The recent violent volcanic eruption on the Pacific island nation of Tonga is believed to be one of the strongest ever recorded, and future eruptions could be possible, one expert says.

The eruption on Tonga likely ranks among the strongest in at least 30 years, says Andreas Kronenberg, professor of geology at Texas A&M University. The Polynesian country has about 170 islands, and is 500 miles east of Fiji.

The eruption caused a huge ash cloud to form on many of the islands, killed at least three people, could be heard in New Zealand, and seen from space.

“In general, the volcanoes around the Pacific Rim are much more powerful and explosive than Hawaiian-type volcanoes, mostly because of the volatile content and magma compositions in them,” Kronenberg says.

“This is why we are concerned about the volcanoes in the Oregon, Washington, and Alaska regions,” Kronenberg says. “However, the Tonga subduction zone is a large one and the entire Southwest Pacific has what we call ‘stratovolcanoes.’

“These are extremely powerful volcanoes and are also the kinds that include Mount Vesuvius that covered Pompei in Italy and Mount St. Helens, which exploded a few decades ago.”

Mount St. Helens, which exploded in 1980, is considered the most powerful volcanic eruption in US history and killed 57 people.

The largest eruption ever is believed to be the eruption of Krakatoa, which exploded near Indonesia in 1883 and killed more than 36,000 people.

Some have compared the Tonga eruption as similar to Krakatoa, and NASA has said the Tonga explosion was at least 500 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Krakatoa was truly epic, and Tonga was obviously devastating,” Kronenberg says. “And it appears that water entering into the volcano internally added to its explosiveness. The result can be tsunamis because they can be triggered by any disturbance of the seafloor that quickly moves large volumes of seawater, such as faults that suddenly change the shape of the seafloor.”

Could the Tonga explosion mean future eruptions in the area are possible?

“It is possible such an eruption could trigger nearby activity,” Kronenberg says. “But it is not necessarily guaranteed. This is a controversial topic when discussing earthquakes and subsequent eruptions, especially in areas over 10 to 15 miles from the original eruption.”

Source: Texas A&M University