Tonga Geological Services
NASA scientists say the violent eruption of the Hangunga Tonga Hapai volcano in Tonga has pumped an unprecedented amount of water directly into the stratosphere — and the steam will stay there for years, potentially affecting Earth’s climate patterns.
The massive amount of water vapor is about 10% of the normal amount of vapor present in the stratosphere, equivalent to more than 58,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said atmospheric scientist Lewis Millan, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Milan led the study of the water that the volcano sent into the sky. The team’s research has been published in Geophysical Research Letters.
The volcano sent steam and gases to a record height
The January 15 eruption came from a volcano more than 12 miles wide, with the caldera approximately 500 feet below sea level. A day earlier, officials in Tonga reported that the volcano was in a continuous eruption, sending a column of steam and ash 3 miles wide into the sky. Then came the Big Bang, sending ash, gases, and steam into the atmosphere as high as 35 miles — a record in the satellite age.
Drones and other videos from that day show the sheer scale of the eruption, as the volcano spewed an incredibly wide plume into the sky. The intense explosion sent a pressure wave circling the Earth and caused sonic booms to be heard as far away as Alaska.
The huge amount of water is likely to raise temperatures
Large volcanic eruptions earlier affected the climate, but they usually cool the temperatures, as they send light-scattering mists into the stratosphere. These aerosols act as a kind of massive layer of sunscreen. But since water vapor traps heat, an eruption of the Tonga volcano may temporarily raise temperatures slightly, the researchers said.
It usually takes about 2-3 years for sulfate spray from volcanoes to fall from the stratosphere. But the water from the January 15 eruption can take 5 to 10 years to completely dissipate.
Given this time frame and the huge amount of water involved, the Honga Tonga-Hung Hapai eruption may be “the first volcanic eruption observed to affect the climate not through surface cooling caused by volcanic sulfate aerosols, but through surface warming”, As the researchers said in their paper.
NASA says data for the study came from the Microwave Sounder (MLS) instrument on its Aura satellite, which measures water vapor, ozone, aerosols and gases in Earth’s atmosphere.
The volcano cut off the “pulses” of water in the stratosphere
The January 15 eruption disrupted annual water patterns in the stratosphere (which also retains most of the ozone layer in the atmosphere).
The normal mechanism by which the water rises Its stratosphere is so reliable that researchers refer to it as a kind of tape recorder, indicating annual temperature cycles through alternating bands of dry and moist air rising from the tropics.
January is usually the middle of the dry period in that seasonal cycle – but then the South Pacific volcano Tonga erupted, suddenly pumping a massive amount of water into the atmosphere.
By shortening the path through the cold point, [Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai] The researchers said this ‘heartbeat’ signal was disrupted ‘in the normal water pattern in the planet’s atmosphere.
They recommend keeping a close eye on water from a volcanic eruption, to predict its near-term impact and to better understand how future eruptions will affect the planet’s climate.
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