Volcano’s size is impressive. What it may mean for the whole planet is uncertain.

The violent eruption of Tonga’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano injected an unprecedented amount of water directly into the stratosphere — and the vapor will stay there for years, likely affecting the Earth’s climate patterns, NASA scientists say.

The massive amount of water vapor is roughly 10% of the normal amount of vapor found in the stratosphere, equaling more than 58,000 Olympic-size swimming pools….”We’ve never seen anything like it,” said atmospheric scientist Luis Millán, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Millán led a study of the water the volcano sent into the sky; the team’s research was published in Geophysical Research Letters…

The Jan. 15 eruption came from a volcano that’s more than 12 miles wide, with a caldera sitting roughly 500 feet below sea level. One day earlier, Tongan officials reported the volcano was in a continuous eruption, sending a 3-mile-wide plume of steam and ash into the sky. Then the big blast came, sending ash, gases and vapor as high as 35 miles — a record in the satellite era — into the atmosphere…

Earlier large volcanic eruptions have affected climate, but they usually cool temperatures, because they send light-scattering aerosols into the stratosphere. Those aerosols act as a sort of massive layer of sunscreen. But since water vapor traps heat, the Tongan eruption could temporarily raise temperatures a bit, the researchers said.

It normally takes around 2-3 years for sulfate aerosols from volcanoes to fall out of the stratosphere. But the water from the Jan. 15 eruption could take 5-10 years to fully dissipate.

Given that timeframe and the extraordinary amount of water involved, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai “may be the first volcanic eruption observed to impact climate not through surface cooling caused by volcanic sulfate aerosols, but rather through surface warming,” the researchers said in their paper.

This is one to keep an eye on. No doubt we’ll revisit the Hunga Ha’apai volcano more than once in the years to come.

One thought on “Volcano’s size is impressive. What it may mean for the whole planet is uncertain.

  1. Nervous Nelly says:

    Researchers at the University of Bristol and Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre have discovered that volcanic super-eruptions occur when huge accumulations of magma deep in the Earth’s crust, formed over millions of years, move rapidly to the surface disrupting pre-existing rock.
    Using a model for crustal flow, an international team of scientists were able to show that pre-existing plutons – a body of intrusive rock made from solidified magna or lava – were formed over a few million years prior to four known gigantic super eruptions and that the disruption of these plutons by newly emplaced magmas took place extraordinarily rapidly. While the magma supplying super eruptions takes place over a prolonged period of time, the magma disrupts the crust and then erupts in just a few decades.
    The findings, published today in Nature [link], explain these extreme differences in time ranges for magma generation and eruption by flow of hot but solid crust in response to ascent of the magma, accounting for the infrequency of these eruptions and their huge volumes.
    …Such eruptions are very rare and Bristol scientists estimate only one of these types of eruptions occur on earth every 20,000 years. However such eruptions are highly destructive locally and can create global scale severe climate change that would have catastrophic consequences. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/960462
    See also: Supervolcano https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supervolcano

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