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.