The Tonga eruption may have spawned a tsunami 90 meters tall

The massive Tonga eruption generated a set of planet-circling tsunamis that may have started out as a single mound of water roughly the height of the Statue of Liberty.

What’s more, the explosive eruption triggered an immense atmospheric shock wave that spawned a second set of especially fast-moving tsunamis, a rare phenomenon that can complicate early warnings for these oft-destructive waves, researchers report in the October Ocean Engineering.

As the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano erupted in the South Pacific in January, it displaced a large volume of water upward, says Mohammad Heidarzadeh, a civil engineer at the University of Bath in England (SN: 1/21/22). The water in that colossal mound later “ran downhill,” as fluids tend to do, to generate the initial set of tsunamis.

To estimate the original size of the mound, Heidarzadeh and his team used computer simulations, as well as data from deep-ocean instruments and coastal tide gauges within about 1,500 kilometers of the eruption, many of them in or near New Zealand. The arrival times of tsunami waves, as well as their sizes, at those locations were key pieces of data, Heidarzadeh says.

The team analyzed nine possibilities for the initial wave, each of which was shaped like a baseball pitcher’s mound and had a distinct height and diameter. The best fit to the real-world data came from a mound of water a whopping 90 meters tall and 12 kilometers in diameter, the researchers report.

That initial wave would have contained an estimated 6.6 cubic kilometers of water. “This was a really large tsunami,” Heidarzadeh says.

Despite starting out about nine times as tall as the tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan in 2011, the Tongan tsunamis killed only five people and caused about $90 million in damage, largely because of their remote source (SN: 2/10/12).

Another unusual aspect of the Tongan eruption is the second set of tsunamis generated by a strong atmospheric pressure wave.

That pressure pulse resulted from a steam explosion that occurred when a large volume of seawater infiltrated the hot magma chamber beneath the erupting volcano. As the pressure wave raced across the ocean’s surface at speeds exceeding 300 meters per second, it pushed water ahead of it, creating tsunamis, Heidarzadeh explains.

animation showing the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano and the accompanying pressure wave, like a huge ripple
The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano also triggered an atmospheric pressure wave that in turn generated tsunamis that traveled quicker than expected.NASA Earth Observatory

Along many coastlines, including some in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, these pressure wave–generated tsunamis arrived hours ahead of the gravity-driven waves spreading from the 90-meter-tall mound of water. Gravity-driven tsunami waves typically travel across the deepest parts of the ocean, far from continents, at speeds between 100 and 220 meters per second. When the waves reach shallow waters near shore, the waves slow, water stacks up and then strikes shore, where destruction occurs.

Pressure wave–generated tsunamis have been reported for only one other volcanic eruption: the 1883 eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia (SN: 8/27/83).

Those quicker-than-expected arrival times — plus the fact that the pressure-wave tsunamis for the Tongan eruption were comparable in size with the gravity-driven ones — could complicate early warnings for these tsunamis. That’s concerning, Heiderzadeh says.

One way to address the issue would be to install instruments that measure atmospheric pressure with the deep-sea equipment already in place to detect tsunamis, says Hermann Fritz, a tsunami scientist at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

With that setup, scientists would be able to discern if a passing tsunami is associated with a pressure pulse, thus providing a clue in real time about how fast the tsunami wave might be traveling.

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