When Tonga’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted violently earlier this year, it spewed an unprecedented amount of water vapor into the atmosphere – and it’s likely to have noticeable effects on temperatures in Earth.
The January 15 eruption near the Pacific archipelago nation caused a tsunami and sonic boom that circled the Earth twice, and was described by the local government as “.”
It not only sent ash into the stratosphere, but also enough water vapor to fill 58,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to NASA. Scientists said it had broken “all records” for water vapor injection since satellites began recording such data.
Footage from drones, flights and even the International Space Station captured the remarkable scale of the explosion.
NASA’s Aura satellite’s Microwave Limb Sounder instrument, which measures atmospheric gases, has founddelivered about 146 teragrams of water to the stratosphere, between about eight and 33 miles above the planet’s surface. One teragram equals one trillion grams, and this extreme amount increased the total amount of water in the stratosphere by about 10%.
That’s nearly four times the amount of water vapor estimated to enter the stratosphere since the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Scientists say the unprecedented plume, whichcould temporarily affect the Earth’s global average temperature.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Luis Millán, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose team said the water vapor readings were “off the charts.”
“We had to carefully inspect all the plume measurements to make sure they were trustworthy,” Millán said.
Since NASA began taking measurements 18 years ago, only two other eruptions, the 2008 Kasatochi eruption in Alaska and the 2015 Calbuco eruption in Chile, have sent significant amounts of vapor. water at such high altitudes. Both dissipated quickly – and neither event compares to the massive amount of water released by the Tonga event.
Powerful volcanic eruptions typically cool surface temperatures on Earth as the resulting ash reflects sunlight. However, themarks a stark contrast, as the water vapor it releases can trap heat.
It is “perhaps the first observed volcanic eruption to impact climate not through surface cooling caused by volcanic sulfate aerosols, but rather through surface heating,” the researchers said. researchers.
Experts say this water vapor could remain in the stratosphere for several years, potentially temporarily worsening ozone layer depletion and raising surface temperatures. The water might even stick around for decades, but it shouldn’t have permanent effects.
“The effect would dissipate when the additional water vapor rises out of the stratosphere and is not enough to significantly exacerbate the effects of climate change,” the scientists say.
Experts point to the submarine volcano’s caldera, a basin-like depression about 490 feet deep, as the reason for the record-breaking eruption. If the caldera was shallower, seawater would not have been warm enough to account for water vapor measurements, and if deeper, intense pressures could have dampened the explosion.