Microscale clues provide insight into cataclysmic Tongan volcanic eruption

Key Points
  • The intensely powerful and destructive Hunga blast was unlike previous events, It was a unique event in that scientists were able to capture the eruption with satellite imagery and other instruments.
  • The Hunga volcano started out with a flat upper surface to a depth of 150 metres before the eruption, which ejected at least 6.5 cubic kilometres of ash and rock and left a deep caldera 250 metres below sea level.
  • Electron microscopy revealed different concentrations of chemicals in the two types of magma that came together and mingled to form distinctive swirling bands in the samples. Infrared beamline analysis techniques provided crucial information about the diffusion of water in the tiny fragments.
  • The chilling effect of the water as the magma fragmented, the concentration of water and the chemical composition of the particles also provided clues about the depth at which the event occurred.

When the Tongan Hunga volcano erupted in January this year, it was a huge explosion with a mass ejection that reached more than 55 kilometres into the atmosphere, causing local fatalities and evacuations. The blast created significant tsunami waves in the Pacific Basin and generated pressure waves that encircled the globe.

Although not a significant inundation,  the impact of the tsunami reached Australia with waves of 82cm at the Gold Coast, 65cm at Port Kembla and 77cm at Eden’s Twofold Bay in NSW.

In an effort to understand why the eruption was so explosive, internationally-recognised volcanologist Prof. Shane Cronin of the University of Auckland and associates rely on beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron to support comprehensive research on the Hunga event.

Two sets of experiments have already been carried on the Imaging and Medical beamline and the Infrared Microspectroscopy beamline, while another investigation is scheduled for the X-ray fluorescence microscopy beamline.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Undersea volcano

Secrets of spider web strength revealed

An international collaboration between the University of MelbourneUniversity of Bayreuth and ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron provides the first insights into how the rare silk of the Australian basket-web spider retains its strength and resilient structure— allowing the spider to make a robust and rather exquisite silken basket.  

The silk is so firm and remarkable that it enables the basket web to maintain its structural integrity without any support from the surrounding vegetation.

The insights into physical and chemical properties of this basket-web silk may be useful for the production of artificial spider silks, which have already shown strong potential as an advanced biomimetic material in textile and medical applications.

“The biochemical makeup of the silk thread cross-section, particularly secondary protein structures and complex carbohydrates, was examined on the Infrared Microspectroscopy (IRM) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron,” said beamline scientist and co-author, Dr Pimm Vongsvivut.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Credit:  Hanyl et al, “Free-standing spider silk webs of the thomisid Saccodomus Formivorus are made of composites comprising micro- and submicron fibers,” Scientific Reports10, 17624 (2020)