Tonga erupts!

By Phil Plait | March 19, 2009 7:00 pm

The Big Picture has a great series of photos of a recent eruption from an undersea volcano near Tonga, located a few hundred kilometers southeast of Fiji.

Tonga eruption


This afternoon an earthquake in the region triggered a brief tsunami warning that blew over. It may very well be that a small tremor a few days ago is what triggered this eruption, too.

In case you ever wonder just how much energy is involved even in a small blast, consider this: the plume of ash and rock goes up several hundred meters. OK, go outside and find a rock that masses about 10 kilos. Now climb a flight of steps with it and see how tired you get. Now imagine climbing 100 flights of stairs with it.

Now imagine doing that with, say, a million of those rocks. That’s how much energy it takes to blast the plume into the sky.

Never misunderestimate planet Earth. There’s a lot of energy just sitting there under our feet, and sometimes it struggles free.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (68)

  1. Pat

    Coolest photos ever. Thank you!


    Just beautiful!

  3. Jack Mitcham


    Is that you, W? :-p

  4. bobbys

    i don’t think misunderestimate is a word. i think it’s misunderstand or underesterimate

  5. ColinB

    Great -Let’s drill down through the crust with some real-big nukes and harness some of this here red molten gold! Yeeee haah!

  6. bobbys: You’re not from the US, are you?

  7. woah [/Neo]

    Very impressive pics – and a striking illustration from the BA of the energy involved. O_O

  8. Davidlpf

    There she blows.

  9. One doesn’t need to be from the US to misunderestimate the junior prezBush …

  10. Brian

    EX-prez, thankyewvurramuch.

  11. Brian

    Back on topic: Holy smoke! That’s some serious violence coming up out of the ocean!

  12. Yeah, I’ve had days like this, too.

  13. Looks like tons and tons of CO2 to me. We should ban volcanoes or at least make them more green.

  14. Jack Mitcham

    Just force the volcanoes to buy carbon credits!

  15. Cindy


    Any idea how far under the surface of the water the eruption was? Not only did it shoot the material 100 m into the air, but you forgot about the energy needed to overcome the viscosity of water. So your analogy needs to be adjusted to not only are you going up a 100 flights of stairs, but that’s after you swam with it a certain distance.

    Rather impressive. I think if I hadn’t gone into Astronomy, I might have studied volcanoes.

  16. Cindy

    I was just googling to see if there was any information on how far under the surface the eruption was. National Geographic has a brief video of it. Pretty cool.

    Here’s the link:

  17. Colin J

    But why would we need to fund science to study and try and predict when these things will explode? That looks like it could be in Bobby Jindal’s backyard and not cause too much trouble. Silly science.

    Awesome pic!

  18. IVAN3MAN


    Err… Dr. Phil Plait…

    Oxford English Dictionary:

    mis- prefix 1. (Added to verbs and their derivatives) Wrongly, badly, or unsuitably: mismanage. 2. Occurring in some nouns expressing a sense with negative force: misadventure.

    mis- A prefix applied to various parts of speech, meaning “ill,” “mistaken,” “wrong,” “wrongly,” “incorrectly,” or simply negating: mistrial; misprint; mistrust.

    So, adding a negative prefix to a negative word results in a double negative, and a double negative is used to negate a negation; therefore, it resolves to a positive.


  19. Just a question, in what situations do physicists say something “masses 10kg” and in which do they say it “weighs 10kg”?

  20. ivan3man, I suggest you try googling “misunderestimate”.

  21. MadScientist

    Oooo. :)

    There’s a volcano in PNG that’s been erupting since 1994 – I wonder if it’s still going. I lost track of it some time in 2004.

    Then of course there’s Stromboli which has been in eruption for over 2000 years; every few minutes some glowing red rocks fly out.

    They may look awesome (imagine Kilauea’s rivers of lava and the fountains at night) but I wouldn’t want to live near one. Kilauea’s probably not so bad – at least it generally doesn’t spit out sand like many volcanoes – that just ruins your hair (and gets in your lungs).

  22. How’s it going, Phil W. Plait?

    I love volcanoes! Pictures of volcanoes are good, too.

  23. José

    Just great. I’ve heard misunderestimate so much now, it’s starting to sound correct.

  24. Jeremy

    “ivan3man, I suggest you try googling “misunderestimate”.”

    Yeah, but if you use it in a common way, it’ll enter common usage. Haven’t we done enough to the poor, beleaguered English language? :)

  25. The BA says: “Now imagine doing that with, say, a million of those rocks. That’s how much energy it takes to blast the plume into the sky.”

    And don’t forget that it had to push millions of ton(ne)s of water out of the way before it even reached the air.

    – Jack

  26. Phil Plait:

    I suggest you try googling “misunderestimate”.

    Well, Phil, I did check my facts beforehand, but if you insist… and you’re gonna wish you hadn’t because these are some of the results:


    1. misunderestimate A word made up by Bush (look for Bushism)
    “They misunderestimate me” – George W. Bush

    * From there’s this:

    “They misunderestimate me.”

    The misuse of “misunderestimate” for ‘underestimate’ seems to be one of George W. Bush’s more common elocutionary mistakes. We can’t pin down exactly when he used “misunderestimate” for the first time in a public statement as a presidential candidate; the earliest print reference we could find appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on 13 November 2000, but it didn’t detail where and when he said it. Nonetheless, Bush was still using the word (and catching himself at it) after his inauguration as President, as demonstrated by this excerpt from a 29 March 2001 news conference:

    Look, it is in our nation’s best interests to have long-term tax relief, and that has been my focus all along. I’m confident we can have it, get it done. I believe not only can we get long-term tax relief in place. Since our country is running some surpluses in spite of the dire predictions about cash flow, I believe we have an opportunity to fashion an immediate stimulus package, as well. The two ought to go hand in hand. Those who think that they can say, “We’re only going to have a stimulus package, but let’s forget tax relief,” misunderestimate… or, excuse me, underestimate — just making sure you were paying attention — underestimate our administration’s resolve to get this done…

    * From the Associated — there’s this:

    “Misunderestimate” Adult Illiteracy at Your Own Risk — 14% Already Do

    Of Bushisms and Adult Illiteracy

    Bushisms are in the news, and President Bush’s suggestion that his audience “misunderestimated me” is a source of much hilarity. Illiteracy is another term that is in the news. It could be said that 14% of U.S. adults misunderestimate illiteracy.

    A Bushism is a term coined by outgoing President George W. Bush. Bushisms are known for being a mixture of inimitable jargon and glaring misuse of terminology. Over time they have morphed into a set of terms, of which “misunderestimate” is the cream of the crop.


    * From N.Y. Daily — there’s this:

    “Misunderestimate” tops list of notable “Bushisms”

    Of the many things for which President Bush will be remembered, his language mistakes, faux pas, and “unique” terminology may rank near the top.


    The Global Language Monitor said it compiled the list through nominations from language observers around the world, then ranked them with an algorithm that tracks words and phrases in print and electronic media.

    1. “Misunderestimate” Stated in the immediate aftermath of the disputed 2000 election. One of the first and perhaps most iconic Bushisms (November 6, 2000).


    Furthermore, I’ve consulted a number of on-line dictionaries, from the O.E.D. to the American favourite, Merriam-Webster, and they have all come up negative for the term “misunderestimate” with one suggesting that I try Wikipedia — the font of all knowledge!

    So, I entered “misunderestimate” into the search box and it redirected me to… wait for it… wait for it… “Bushism”! (Click on my name for the Wikipedia link.)

    So, Phil, you were saying…?


    P.S.Google spellcheck also does not recognize “misunderestimate”. 😉

  27. Naomi


    …See, this is why I want to do volcanology. It looks friggin’ COOL XD (I’m torn between it and planetary science. Maybe I can study volcanoes on other planets/dwarf planets/moons?)

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Nice model. So that’s like a potential energy of 10^6*10*9.8*100*2 ~ 2*10^10 J for common stair levels, or 2*10^10/4.2*10^9 ~ 1/2*10 = 5 t TNT (@ 4.184 GJ/t TNT [Wikipedia], if I’m not mistaken.

    Seems volcanos can erupt on a huge energy scale, from the Mt St Helens explosion estimated to an energy equivalent of 10^6 t TNT to explosion signals from the more or less active Tungurahua volcano on the order of 0.001 to 1 t TNT (effective yield estimated from seismic data).

    At a conversion efficiency of, say, ~ 1 % between kinetic energy of launched mass and initial energy release, that’s a rather hot volcano then. (And adding water as per Jack’s commentary, it’s even more impressive.)

    @ Ivan3man:

    But isn’t the use of the recent term “Bushism” misundermining that language process analysis?

    FWIW, I’ll think we should embiggen our language as long as it stays useful. [OTOH, I’m from a language culture where we often build new terms by concatenating old, for example “farfar” for “my father’s father (grandfather)” or “temperaturkontroll” for “temperature controller”. So maybe I should upshut posthaste.]

  29. PopcornSonata

    Awesoooome!!! When does Godzilla show up?!

  30. Oh, for crying out loud! I’m sure Phil realizes that “misunderstimate” is not a real word. But it sounds good, and let’s face it, Bad Astronomy ain’t exactly a scholarly website written only for geeks with multiple Phd’s. I mean, when’s the last time Scientific American posted a link to

    And yes, I know “ain’t” ain’t really a word.

  31. MadScientist

    @PhilPlait: Give it up, bobbys and ivan3man are right and you’re wrong. Don’t join the throngs of illiterates who don’t understand the roots of words and who revel in BS like “irregardless” and “misunderestimate” – that would merely be inventing meaningless drivel. Learn to use a language properly – there are many tens of thousands of words to use; there is no need to make up nonsense, unless of course the nonsense is deliberate such as in this well-known example:

    ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

  32. MadScientist

    @Naomi: So where are you thinking of doing Vulcanology? The folks at MTU (Michigan Tech, in UP Michigan) do their best to get out into the field and do things. I hear all sorts of interesting tales (of often dubious content) – the last time I had a chat with someone she was telling me she had just returned from Guatemala and that the roaches there were bigger than rats. There is also a volcano group in Cambridge (UK) if you happen to be around there. Just keep in mind that these beasts are deadly and it’s really no fun when you’re near or worse still right on the flanks of the volcano when it blows – but don’t let that stop you; it certainly hasn’t stopped others. Depending on where you are, you might want to get in touch with some real live vulcanologists and see what they have to say about things – who knows, you may even be invited to be the gopher on a trip and at least you get to travel. :)

    Oh, one last thing: never fly in a helicopter with vulcanologists – they’re certifiably insane and enjoy flying into craters of active volcanoes just to get a good look at the floor of the crater. It’s a wonder there aren’t more volcano fatalities with that sort of behavior.

  33. Uh, bobbys, IVAN3MAN, MadScientist, you still don’t get it. After you’re done looking up “misunderestimate”, go look up “irony”.

  34. Chris

    wow, there are some people on here who just don’t get a joke.

    very, very cool pics! the power of the earth compels you!

  35. Re: Misunderestimate!

    Misunderestimate is most definitely an English word.

    If you can speak it, and someone recognizes it, it is a word. Just like irregardless. It is a word; it’s also an example of incorrect useage. But it is a word.

    The dictionaries referenced, of course, do not include it because it has not yet stood the test of time. (For example, ‘dark energy’ just was anointed a word by Merriam-Webster Collegiate, some ten years after it was first theorized and only after Google had 10 million citations, many of these from textbooks and peer-reviewed journals.)

    One other thing, double negatives in most languages do not constitute a positive. (Language is not math.) On the contrary, double negatives are used to reinforce the negativity.

    Also, please never use Microsoft’s spell check as a verifier of words. By our count, there are hundreds of thousands of words that MS Word does not reference (and never will).

  36. Gonzo

    Great photos. The Big Picture is really spectacular. Though I only see it through your blog Phil, so thanks for always posting these. I just never get around to checking it out unless I read about it here. I passed this one along to my truck-drivin’ pal, he always needs good links to pass his down time away.

  37. Daniel J. Andrews

    We’d better give Phil grief over his use of the word “embiggen” too, as well as his other pop-culture references. Hm, maybe it might be best, Phil, if you just stop using humour altogether. People are misinterprestimating whatcha talkin’ about.

    I thought we’d have seen a climate crank repeating the usual volcano-C02 myth in the comments here. That we haven’t is a pleasant surprise…but this is a science blog so posters tend to be more informed, although maybe at the expense of our humour centres? :)

  38. Cheyenne

    Gorgeous pictures! Wow I really like the fact that this little rock that we live on is alive and we can see these images. Spectacular!

    Big Picture rocks.

  39. Gonzo

    Oh, I must mention how utterly hilarious it is that sarcasm just doesn’t translate over the intertoobz for everyone. I’m just dying reading these comments about misunderestimate. LOL.

  40. Todd W.

    Man. The whale that sprayed that must’ve been huge! Those of you saying that it was an underwater volcano are just being ignorant. Water puts out fire, so it couldn’t have been a volcano. Duh! 😛

    Anyone spot any pareidolia in those clouds?

  41. Anonymous

    > Never misunderestimate planet Earth. There’s a lot of energy just sitting there under our
    > feet, and sometimes it struggles free.

    And sometimes it warms by itself.

  42. StevoR

    Awesome pictures. THX BA! 😀

    I like humour being added – we need a laugh and smile ever now & again – but then again don’t know that I want Bushisms to further degrade English so I’ve mixed feelings on that minor issue.

    Vulcanology wise -love it!

    Combining astronomy & Vulcanology : There are active volcanoes outside Earth on Io, Triton, Enceladus, Venus, possibly still Mars (Olympus Mons & the others in the Tharsis Bulge – Pavonis Mons, Ascreaus Mons & Arsia Mons plus in the Elysium region), Mercury (the spider – well okay maybe not active), the Moon (ditto) and more .. Even the planet Pluto & its moon Charon may have cyrovolcanism occurring on them! 😉

    I’d also recomend folks read “Surviving Galeras” (I think it was called?) by (?) Stanly Williams (as I think he was named?) a real life volcanological story about what happens when a team studying volcanoes are caught in a very small eruption …

    Or a number of other volcanology-related books that I can’t quite clearly recall & don’t have copies of to hand. (Yeah that doesn’t help much I know. :-( )

    There were also a couple of good dramas I saw based on the idea of the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting and on the historical Krakatoa eruption of 1800 & something as well. Those were shown on ABC TV, Australia some years ago .. Oh & also the documentary “Volcano-Hunters” I think it was called on volcanologusts – superb footage & fascinating! With bretahtaking interviews too .. Those volcanologists have balls of solid rock themselves! 😉 :-)

    All IMHO naturally! 😉

    If you want to see nature at its most spectacular then volcanoes are definitely the go! 8) :-)

  43. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ Todd W. :

    … Those of you saying that it was an underwater volcano are just being ignorant. Water puts out fire, .. !

    Not Greek fire it doesn’t! 😉

    (Greek fire = an ancient chemical weapon of sorts – which burns on water! Oddly, I think the exact formula for it is still a lost secret.)

    Also wasn’t there a river in the USA somewhere that got so polluted it actually caught fire?? 😉

  44. Todd W.

    @Plutonium being from Pluto

    Not Greek fire it doesn’t! 😉

    Ah, but volcanoes don’t spew Greek fire, do they? Hmm?

  45. @ Todd W. – They might! 😉

    After all we don’t know what greek fire was so can’t rule that out!
    (Well not much anyway!) 😉

    For more on Greek Fire – which was used by the ancient Byzantine empire – see the Wiki entry linked to my name.

    Breif summary from that :

    “Greek fire was a primitive incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning even on water. It provided a key technological advantage, and was responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason for the Byzantine Empire surviving as long as it did. Medieval sources mention weapons sometimes referred to as “Greek fire” as being also used by Arabs, Chinese, and Mongols; however, these were most likely another incendiary weapon of a different composition and not Greek fire based on the original formula, which was a highly protected secret of the Byzantine Empire and not even discovered by the Latin Empire or the Ottoman Empire. Whilst the real formula is not known, some of the ingredients may have included naphtha, quicklime, sulfur, and niter.[1][2]”

  46. Todd W.

    @Plutonium being from Pluto

    Do you see Greek fire in those pictures? Didn’t think so. You’re just part of the conspiracy to deny the existence of giant whales!

    (Man, writing this kind of drivel is hard work! I really don’t know how trolls can do it.)

  47. Found something on Galeras (well actually on Wikipedia about Galeras!) if folsk are interested – click my name for more :

    “Galeras (Urcunina among the 16th-century indigenous people) is an Andean stratovolcano … It has erupted frequently since the Spanish conquest, with its first historical eruption being recorded on December 7, 1580.[2] A 1993 eruption killed nine people, including six scientists who had descended into the volcano’s crater to sample gases.[3] It is currently the most active volcano in Colombia.”

    & references there include :

    “Marta Lucia Calvache V.; Gloria Patricia Cortés; Stanley N. Williams (1997). “Stratigraphy and chronology of the Galeras volcanic complex, Colombia”. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 77: 5.“

    I didn’t see the book I mentioend (‘Surviving Galeras’?) quoted there anywhere but I’m pretty sure its author & Galeras survivor was that Stanly N. Williams and the Marta Calvanche listed first there was one of his key rescuers -as well as an accomplished vulcanologist in her own right. It was a rivetting read & worth finding IMHON. :-)

    ‘Spose its getting a bit off topic but then so’s the whole ‘misunderestimate’ debate too so anyhow .. 😉

  48. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Tongan fire maybe? 😉

  49. Plutonium being from Pluto

    As for the trolls I guess having a brian made of stone might help! 😉

    Mind you, I really wouldn’t know! 😛

  50. Plutonium being from Pluto

    “the conspiracy to deny the existence of giant whales!”

    Uh, the Blue Whale strikes me as pretty giant & Idon’t see anyone denying its existence ..

    .. well except for Japanese whalers! 😉 :-(

  51. Grump

    Todd W. Says:

    (Man, writing this kind of drivel is hard work! I really don’t know how trolls can do it.)

    Step 1: Excise half of your grey matter…

  52. Grump

    Plutonium being from Pluto: Brian is made of stone? What does he eat? Better not kick him in the nuts: Corporal Nobbs can attest to that not being the bestest of ideas.

  53. ND

    The best trolls don’t realize that they’re trolling. That’s why they don’t quit, which is important if you want to succeed in trolling.

  54. Todd W.


    Step 1: Excise half of your grey matter…

    Shouldn’t that be, let half your grey matter sit around and be lazy while attending the University of Google?


    which is important if you want to succeed in trolling.

    I guess I just don’t have the right kind of drive to have a successful career as a troll.

  55. Greg in Austin

    Wow Phil, you really got some people fired up. I’ve never heard some of the things being spewed out here. If you stay this course, your interweb popularity might change dramastically.

    Keep it surreal!


  56. ND

    Todd W,

    I suppose that’s a good thing for all humanity :)

  57. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Combining astronomy & Vulcanology

    Astrology? Vulcanomy? Vulcan Starfleet Intelligence?

    (Gosh, that’s hard. I think I misunderestimated how effortnoless this isn’t.)

  58. Gary Ansorge


    “ain’t” (contraction of “am not”) really is a word, it’s just not used correctly, most of the time, as in, “I ain’t going to the store, no way,,,” would be somewhat correct but “You ain’t going to the store, no way,,,” would be merely iggorant(snark).

    Dang! I’ve been in Georgia a LOONNGGGG time,,,

    Tim Bennett:
    On earth, a 10 kg mass weighs 10 kg. On the moon, a 10 kg mass weighs 1.6667 kg.

    Get it???

    GAry 7

  59. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Step 1: Excise half of your grey matter…

    No, no. See, it’s gray matter, but it’s set in fixed patterns. It isn’t stone, it’s concrete.

    Q: – How do you know it’s a troll?
    A: – By daylight he’s petrified in place.

  60. IVAN3MAN

    Hmmm… Poe’s Law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.”

    So, it appears that Phil Plait had me (*Slaps forehead*) going there. Nice one, Phil! 😛

  61. MadScientist

    @Carey: OK, I looked around – and there is no such word. I object to people promoting such nonsense and think that people should be put down for such a vile abuse of language. No one should tolerate managers with their “incentivise” and other BS; this is simply giving in to poor thinking. I don’t see any irony here – if any were intended it is very poor and will have to be explained to me.

  62. IVAN3MAN

    @ MadScientist,


    “The worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” — George Orwell.

  63. I was on Tonga a year or so ago and the locals were talking about a new island that had smoked into existence a couple of years earlier. I was torn between wishing I’d seen it or being terrified of being near these monsters. Now we have these pictures. Awesome.

    Actually the reason we were on Tonga was to swim with the other “monsters” of the deep…

  64. Bein'Silly

    @ IVAN3MAN Says:

    “Hmmm… Poe’s Law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.”

    Wouldn’t it be ironic funny if there really were no Creationists / lunatic Fundamentalists but only awhole bunch of trolls / poe posters being ironic? 😉

  65. Bein'Silly

    Just think creationism would just be one big dumb joke .. 😉

    … Oh wait, it already is! 😉

    ‘Cept o’course it ain’t very funny. :-(

  66. Nebular Raven

    “Misunderestimate” aten’t a word? I thought a presidential decree would have made it a word in the last 8 years.

    Creationism is a big joke, but even if the jokers don’t realize they are joking, it doesn’t make the joke less stupid. The reason people aren’t laughing is that they are afraid of them. Nobody should be afraid of them, just point out how ludicrous they are. There’s no reason to give them the “benefit of the doubt” in the first round, as they will seize it with rhetorics.


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