Astronauts in space photographed a giant volcano erupting in the Pacific Ocean

NASA's Earth Observatory

The Raikoke Volcano in the northern Pacific Ocean hadn’t erupted in nearly 100 years — until it suddenly did, on June 22 at around 4 a.m. Located in the Kuril Islands off the coast of Russia just north of Hokkaido, Japan, the volcano sent a plume of smoke and ash into the air that was so high and intense, astronauts were able to photograph it.

Raikoke is a very quiet volcano — its last eruptions were in 1778 and 1924, making this one quite a surprise. The volcano’s crater is about 2,300 feet wide (almost half a mile) and 650 feet deep, and its eruption was so enormous that it broke through miles of cloud cover and could be seen from outer space.

Orbiting satellites recorded the eruption, and even astronauts on board the International Space Station were able to witness the explosion. The blast sent smoke, ash and debris at least eight miles above sea level, according to the European Space Agency.

Here’s the image the astronauts shot:

NASA's Earth Observatory

“What a spectacular image,” Simon Carn, a volcanologist at Michigan Tech, said in a statement from NASA. “The ring of white puffy clouds at the base of the column might be a sign of ambient air being drawn into the column and the condensation of water vapor. Or it could be a rising plume from the interaction between magma and seawater because Raikoke is a small island and flows likely entered the water.”

Here’s satellite video of the eruption, as captured on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s @NOAA Satellites’ Twitter account.

Currently, satellites in space are tracking the emissions released by the volcano. Raikoke’s explosion produced a concentrated plume of sulfur dioxide, a toxic substance considered to be one of the indirect greenhouse gases affecting climate change. This got caught up in a storm traveling eastward in the North Pacific. Carn said in the NASA statement that the sulfur dioxide may have reached the stratosphere, Earth’s second layer of the atmosphere.

Additionally, NASA needs to keep track of any volcanic plumes that break through the stratosphere — around 33,000 feet or 6.2 miles above sea level — because the eruptions can affect airplanes.

This image is a composite view based on data from the weather satellite Suomi NPP and shows the plume a few hours after the explosion. NASA says that the initial surge included several distinct explosive pulses, then strong wings spread the ash across the Pacific Ocean. But by the next day, most of it was no longer visible to the  Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite

NASA's Earth Observatory

The ash plumes contain shards of volcanic glass and rock which can spell trouble for nearby aircraft. Two volcanic-ash advisory centers in Tokyo and Anchorage, Alaska, have been tracking the ash plume since the eruption and have issued several warnings to aviators, NASA reported.

Here is a satellite view of the eruption, taken by MODIS.

NASA's Earth Observatory

Volcanoes are generally openings on the surface of a planet. They allow material that is warmer than its surroundings to escape from its interior. That causes an eruption, which may either be explosive, as Raikoke’s was, sending ash far into the sky, or calmer, sending flows of lava (which is called magma when it’s inside) down the sides of the volcano.

In some cases, volcanoes are located on the edges of tectonic plates, which are basically cracked pieces of the Earth’s surface that glide over the mantle underneath. Magma rises up because the plates are moving away or moving into each other. The magma may move in to fill the space, if the plates are separating. If the plates are closing in, one plate may be pushed under another. This creates heat and pressure, causing the crust to melt into magma. Magma may also rise over hot areas in the Earth, that heats it up and makes it less dense, causing it to rise.

Here’s a close-up view of an eruption at Ecuador’s Tungurahua volcano, which has been active basically throughout recorded history:


Pretty amazing, right?

What an incredible, rare view of the natural processes that have helped shape the planet we live on!

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Jessica Suss
Current high-school English teacher, native Chicagoan, and nut butter enthusiast moonlighting as a writer.

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