University of Reading: Hunga Tonga volcano created biggest explosion on record

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano earlier this year has been confirmed as the biggest explosion ever recorded in the atmosphere.

New research published in the journal Science has shown the volcano in the South Pacific created an explosion bigger than anything else ever recorded by modern geophysical equipment.

The explosion on 15 January 2022 was significantly larger than every atmospheric nuclear bomb test, meteor explosion and volcanic eruption in history, including Mt. St. Helens in 1980 and Pinatubo in 1991. Only the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa created a shockwave of a similar scale.

Barometer readings show Hunga Tonga produced a pressure wave that travelled around the world four times over six days – approximately the same as for Krakatoa. Audible sound from the main eruption was reported 10,000km away in Alaska, compared to 4,800km for Krakatoa.

Professor Giles Harrison, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Reading and co-author of the study, said: “It is amazing that cloud on a quiet Saturday evening in the UK was disturbed by a volcano in Tonga. Reviewing data from recording equipment has revealed the sheer scale of this once-in-a-century eruption, which dwarfed every previously recorded explosion created by man or nature.

“Because of the vast and widespread effects seen from the oceans to the upper atmosphere, the eruption is bound to be studied for decades to improve predictive models.”

The research, led by the University of California, showed that the atmospheric pressure wave produced by Hunga Tonga was comparable with that from the biggest ever nuclear explosion, but lasted four times longer. It was recorded by the International Monitoring System set up to monitor compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

The pressure wave was picked up by atmospheric recording equipment at the University of Reading as it travelled around the planet.

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