National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2024

The 15 January 2022 Hunga (Tonga) eruption: A gas-driven climactic explosion

Henley, R.W., C.E.J. de Ronde, R.J. Arculus, G. Hughes, T.-S. Pham, A.S. Casas, V. Titov, and S.L. Walker

J. Volcanol. Geoth. Res., 451, 108077, doi: 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2024.108077 (2024)

An extraordinarily powerful, explosive eruption occurred from Hunga volcano in the Tonga island arc on 15 January 2022 and generated an eruption column 58 km high. The explosive eruption also generated atmospheric gravity waves, extreme runup tsunamis and quite unusual and destructive meteotsunamis. Together these place this VEI 6 eruption as, globally, one of the largest of the past 300 years.

Based on the oceanic context of Hunga volcano, it has previously been assumed that the eruption was phreatomagmatic through a fuel-coolant Surtseyan-type interaction, but this is not supported by satellite imagery. Similarly, it has been suggested that a caldera-collapse was the eruption trigger, but this is not supported by bathymetric data or the seismicity recorded during the eruption. Here we develop a new model based on the observed energetics and time sequence of the eruption integrated with understanding of the internal structure of active volcanoes and their characteristic high flux discharges of volcanic gas.

It has been shown elsewhere that magma-derived reactive gases (H2O, CO2, SO2, HCl, etc) aggressively alter the volcanic rocks in the core of a volcano leading to self-sealing of gas flow to the surface and consequent changes to deviatoric stress in the structure. Common minerals developed by these reactions include anhydrite (CaSO4), sulphides and silica (quartz), all of which have been recorded in volcanic ejecta including at Hunga.

We here develop a first order numerical model that quantifies how the free discharge of such gas to the surface may progressively become choked by these sealing reactions leading to increased internal gas pressure. Hydraulic fracture of the seal occurs when the transmitted pressure of the compressed magmatic gas beneath the seal increases to a value greater than the lithostatic pressure plus the tensile strength of the sealed rock. This initiates the explosive release of compressed gas whose high-power discharge progressively develops and enlarges a crater. At the same time, the explosion feeds upon itself by generating larger pressure gradients in the pressurized gas within the fractured porous rock mass of the core of the volcano. Excavation of the crater may intersect high level intrusions and produce the pumice rafts that were observed after the eruption. The eruption itself diminished in intensity as the gas pressure in the reservoir declined.

At Hunga, the eruption excavated an 850 m deep, 2-3 km diameter steep-walled crater. This volume may be assumed to approximate the volume of fractured porous rock (the control volume of the eruption) whose trapped gas was mined by the eruption until surrounding gas pressure was depleted. Our numerical model shows that the calculated potential energy of the trapped compressed gas matches the independent observations of the scale of the eruption. Sensor data have since shown that gas bubble flares continued for at least 6 months after the eruption indicating continued depletion of the gas reservoir of rocks surrounding the new crater. The systems-based, gas-driven model for the Hunga climactic eruption developed here also applies to Plinean-type eruptions on subaerial arc volcanoes such as at Pinatubo (Philippines) 1991.

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