Scientists have come a long way in studying Earth's many phenomena. But every now and then, the planet presents us with a marvel that leaves us bewildered. This time, it was the recent massive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano: a mysterious disaster that scientists will likely be solving for years.
The island volcano, located in the Pacific Ocean, erupted on January 15, 2022, causing mysteriously unusual ripples in the Earth's atmosphere. It led to giant 15-foot tsunami waves appearing across the Pacific, hitting hundreds of homes in Tonga, Hawaii, California - and even Australia. "Everything so far about this eruption is off-the-scale weird," says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist with Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program. Firstly - and perhaps most importantly - the volcano has become mostly submerged underwater, making it even more difficult to study. Because of this, scientists are still unsure about possible future eruptions and volcanic activity coming from the island. One thing they are looking forward to, though, is analyzing the chemistry of the volcano's newly formed rocks to better understand how the explosion happened. Volcanologist Geoff Kilgour suspects that water also may have aided in the process of the volcano's eruption. He explains that water can cause a lot of pressure to build up inside the volcano, causing the power of its explosion to become even more massive.
Another odd discovery scientists made was that the size of the giant eruption appeared to be disproportionate to the amount of material released by the volcano. Simon Barker, a volcanologist at Victoria University of Wellington, pointed out that the layer of ash on nearby islands from the volcano's past eruptions was ten times thicker than the new layer caused by the recent explosion. It's possible that the volcano's unusual contents were caused by the enormous burst of air caused by the intense pressure building up inside. This, in turn, may be able to explain the strange tsunami that occurred as a result. The tsunami's waves were surprisingly low for the damage that it caused. "It basically had a very low decay of tsunami size... which is really, really unusual," Kilgour noted.
Clearly, there are many questions still surrounding the phenomenon - from identifying the spark that triggered the eruption to understanding the aftermath. And, as scientists rush to figure out exactly what happened, we can only hope for the best for those recovering from its catastrophic effects. Stay tuned.