After lying dormant for the last 95 years, Raikoke, a small island volcano in the northwest Pacific Ocean, awoke with such ferocity on the morning of June 22 that the eruption could be seen from space.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured the eruption in a breathtaking photo that shows a narrow column of ash and gases billowing out into an “umbrella region,” where the plume’s density and the air around it equalize, halting its ascent. In the image, the top of the cloud loses its shape as it’s drawn into an eastward storm from the North Pacific.
The white puffs at the bottom of the plume are probably caused by water. According to Michigan Tech volcanologist Simon Carn, the clouds may have formed when the eruption condensed water vapor from the surrounding air, or when hot magma made contact with seawater.
The volcano exploded nine times, and six of them were in the first 25 minutes. The ash cloud also included hundreds of lightning bolts, common for a volcanic eruption and known as a “dirty thunderstorm,” reports Matthew Cappucci for The Washington Post. Thunder is also common during a volcanic eruption—find out what that sounds like here.
Raikoke, which Russia acquired from Japan after World War II, is less than two square miles in area and is located near the center of the Kuril Chain. Luckily, the island is uninhabited, so nobody had to outrun the eruption. But the 42,700-foot-high cloud reached the stratosphere, where it could pose a threat to planes that goes beyond potential visibility issues, since it contains rock and volcanic glass. The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers in both Tokyo and Anchorage have been closely monitoring its effects and warning pilots as needed.
Volcanoes powerful enough to reach the stratosphere can also have environmental ramifications. Large emissions of carbon dioxide can contribute to global warming, according to Smithsonian.com, but sulfur dioxide can cause global cooling. NASA reports that after the eruption, a concentrated plume of sulfur dioxide detached itself from the rest of the cloud and made its way toward the North Pacific.