New research highlights the severity of the 2022 Tonga explosion

The event led to many tsunamis but scientists say it could have been a lot worse.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The Tonga volcanic explosion.jpg
The Tonga volcanic explosion.


The 2022 eruption of a submarine volcano in Tonga is being brought back into focus as new research is indicating that it was more powerful than even the largest U.S. nuclear explosion, according to a new study led by scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science and the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation.  

The event consisted of a 15-megaton volcanic explosion from Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, one of the largest natural explosions in more than a century. It had far-reaching outcomes generating a mega-tsunami with waves up to 48 feet high (45 meters) along the coast of Tonga’s Tofua Island and waves up to 56 feet (17 meters) on Tongatapu, the country’s most populated island.

Now, researchers have compiled a combination of before-and-after satellite imagery, drone mapping, and field observations collected by scientists at The University of Auckland – along with data from the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation Global Reef Expedition – to produce a tsunami simulation of the Tongan Archipelago. The outcomes indicate that the event resulted in a more than hour-long tsunami with waves up to 279 feet (85 meters) high one minute after the initial explosion.

“Despite its size and long duration, the mega-tsumani that resulted from Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai claimed few lives,” said Sam Purkis, professor and chair of the Department of Marine Geosciences at the Rosenstiel School. 

“The main factors that led to this, we suggest, are the quirk of the location, the COVID-19 pandemic, and increased evaluation drills and awareness efforts carried out in Tonga in the years prior to the eruption.”

Things, however, could have been far worse: The simulation also suggested that the eruption location relative to urban centers saved Tonga from a significantly more severe outcome.

“While 2022 may have been a lucky escape, other submarine volcanoes possess the capacity to spawn a future tsunami at the same scale, said Purkis, who is also chief scientist at the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation 

“This eruption holds important lessons for both past and future tsunami in Tonga and beyond. The eruption was an excellent natural laboratory to test hypotheses and models that can be deployed elsewhere to improve future disaster preparations, and better understand similar eruptions and subsequent tsunami as preserved in antiquity and in the geologic record.”

The study was published in a new analysis in Science Advances.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board