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.

6 thoughts 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

  2. p/s says:

    The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in January created an initial wave 90 metres high – almost the height of the Statue of Liberty (93m/305 ft) : University of Bath tsunami expert calls for better warning systems to detect volcanic eruptions, saying systems are 30 years behind comparable earthquake detection tools https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/962366

  3. Past is prologue says:

    (September 9, 2022): “Scientists have shed new light on the timing and likely cause of major volcanic events that occurred millions of years ago and caused such climatic and biological upheaval that they drove some of the most devastating extinction events in Earth’s history.
    Surprisingly the new research, published today in leading international journal Science Advances, suggests a slowing of continental plate movement was the critical event that enabled magma to rise to the Earth’s surface and deliver the devastating knock-on impacts.” https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/963571

  4. Eureka says:

    “Recent findings from Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall eruptions change what we know about how volcanoes work” https://www.news.ucsb.edu/2022/020712/earth-s-newest-secret
    “It isn’t every day that we learn something that fundamentally changes how we understand our world. But for UC Santa Barbara Earth scientist Matthew Jackson and the thousands of volcanologists across the globe, such a revelation has occurred.
    While sampling magma from the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, Jackson and his collaborators uncovered a process far more dynamic than anyone had assumed in the two centuries scientists have been studying volcanoes.
    “Just when I think we’ve gotten close to figuring out how these volcanoes work, we get a big surprise,” he said.
    The geologists’ findings are published in the journal Nature [link] Sept 14, 2022 “Rapid shifting of a deep magmatic source at Fagradalsfjall volcano, Iceland”

  5. Cassandra says:

    Researchers estimate the undersea volcano eruption in Tonga in January raised the amount of water in the stratosphere — the second layer of the atmosphere, above the range where humans live and breathe — by around 5%.
    Now, scientists are trying to figure out how all that water could affect the atmosphere, and whether it might warm Earth’s surface over the next few years. https://apnews.com/article/science-tonga-volcanoes-climate-and-environment-931184378acba4b5f33d6f6b14dc245c

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