What really caused Tonga tsunami's 600mph waves

·3-min read
HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA'APAI, TONGA – JANUARY 17, 2022: In this image 4. of a series created on January 19, 2022, Maxar overview satellite imagery shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on January 17, 2022, after the eruption on January 14th , 2022 in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai Islands, Tonga. (Photo by Maxar via Getty Images)
Maxar overview satellite imagery shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano in Tongo after the eruption in January. (Maxar via Getty Images)

An undersea volcano near Tonga erupted earlier this year – it was the largest volcanic eruption of the 21st century and the largest eruption since Krakatoa in 1883.

Researchers now believe they understand what caused the incredibly fast-travelling tsunami which travelled from the eruption, travelling across oceans at more than 600mph.

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on 15 January has been described as the biggest explosion ever recorded in the atmosphere as it was hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

The eruption was the source of both atmospheric disturbances and an exceptionally fast-travelling tsunami that were recorded worldwide, puzzling earth, atmospheric and ocean scientists alike.

The researchers from Cardiff University say the exceptional event was caused by acoustic-gravity waves (AGWs) triggered by the powerful volcanic blast, which travelled into the atmosphere and across the ocean as the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted.

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As these waves converged with each other, energy was continuously pumped into the tsunami which caused it to grow bigger, travel much further, much quicker.

Study co-author Dr Ricardo Ramalho, from Cardiff University's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said: "The idea that tsunamis could be generated by atmospheric waves triggered by volcanic eruptions is not new, but this event was the first recorded by modern, worldwide dense instrumentation, allowing us to finally unravel the exact mechanism behind these unusual phenomena.”

AGWs are very long sound waves travelling under the effects of gravity.

They can cut through a medium such as the deep ocean or the atmosphere at the speed of sound and are produced by volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, among other violent sources.

A single AGW can stretch tens or hundreds of miles and travel at depths of hundreds or thousands of feet below the ocean surface, transferring energy from the upper surface to the seafloor, and across the oceans.

Co-author of the study Dr Usama Kadri, from Cardiff University's School of Mathematics, said: "In addition to travelling across the ocean, AGWs can also propagate into the atmosphere after violent events such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

"The Tonga eruption was in an ideal location below the surface, in shallow water, which caused energy being released into the atmosphere in a mushroom-shape close to the water surface. Thus, the interaction of energetic AGWs with the water surface was inevitable."

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Using sea level, atmospheric and satellite data from across the globe at the time of the volcanic eruption, the team has shown that the tsunami was driven by AGWs that were triggered by the eruption, travelling fast into the atmosphere and, in turn, were continuously 'pumping' energy back into the ocean.

A comparison of atmospheric and sea level data showed a direct correlation between the first sign of air disturbance caused by AGWs and the onset of a tsunami in many locations around the world.

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In the new study, they estimate that the tsunami traveled 1.5 to 2.5 times faster than a volcano-triggered tsunami would, crossing the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans in less than 20 hours at speeds of around 621mph.

Dr Ramalho said: “Because the tsunami was driven by a fast atmospheric source, it propagated directly into the Caribbean and the Atlantic, without having to travel around the South American landmass, as a 'normal' tsunami would.

"This explains why the Tonga tsunami arrived at the Atlantic shores almost 10 hours before what was expected by a 'normal' tsunami.”

Watch: Tonga volcano violently spews ash before eruption

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