Tonga volcano dwarfed biggest nuclear blasts ever seen, monitor says

Tonga volcano: An animation of a powerful volcanic eruption, seen from space.
GOES satellite image of the powerful eruption of Tonga volcano on January 15, 2022. It obliterated a small, uninhabited South Pacific island known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai and produced tsunamis and an atmospheric shock wave that traveled around the world. Image via NASA/NOAA.

NPR reported this morning (January 21, 2022) that Tonga volcano – which erupted a week ago Saturday (January 15, 2022) – dwarfed:

… the largest nuclear detonations ever conducted, according to a global group that monitors for atomic testing. The shockwave from the blast was so powerful that it was detected as far away as Antarctica, says Ronan Le Bras, a geophysicist with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna, Austria, which oversees an international network of remote monitoring stations.

In total, 52 detectors around planet Earth heard the low-frequency boom from the explosion as it travelled through the atmosphere. It was the loudest event the network had detected in more than 20 years of operation, according to Le Bras.

NPR quoted Le Bras as saying:

Every single station picked it up. It’s the biggest thing that we’ve ever seen.

And Le Bras also added that, although the eruption rivaled a nuclear explosion, it wasn’t a nuclear explosion. It was a volcano. Radioactive fallout, the telltale sign of a true nuclear explosion, was not detected at any station, he said.

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Tonga volcano was felt around the globe

The incredible power of the eruption of the Tonga volcano on January 15 reverberated around the world. Satellites in space captured the action even before the eruption started, showing the island sinking and then later the mushroom cloud and pressure waves expanding outward. Approximately 200,000 lightning events took place near Tonga in the first hour of the eruption. People as far away as Australia and across the ocean in Alaska and Canada heard the explosion. Barometers around the world, such as this one in Switzerland, recorded the pressure wave from the South Pacific explosion. And tsunami waves affected shores all the way to the West Coast of the United States.

It was heard in Alaska

Tsunami waves in Oregon and California

Pressure wave crosses the US and globe

The Tonga volcano eruption from space

Lingering effects from the eruption

Bottom line: The Tonga volcano explosion was felt around the world. Tsunamis from the January 15, 2022, event affected the shores of places as far away as Oregon, while the atmospheric pressure wave moved across the globe.

January 21, 2022

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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