Volcano Tonga blew an unprecedented amount of water into the atmosphere


The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption lasted less than a day, but released most of the water vapor into the atmosphere from a volcano ever recorded. Researchers say the explosion could temporarily warm surface temperatures in the years to come and also deplete stratospheric ozone.

On January 15, the underwater volcano exploded and sent a shock wave that reverberated around the world. The powerful blast ejected aerosols, gases, steam and ash 36 miles high, arguably the tallest volcanic plume ever recorded by satellites. The blast damaged more than 100 homes and claimed at least three lives on the island of Tonga. A new study also shows that the volcano has released an unprecedented amount of water vapor, a powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat on Earth.

Satellite data from NASA shows that the volcano has thrown more than 146 teragrams of water – enough to fill 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools – into the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, known as the stratosphere, where the ozone layer is located and just above where. airplanes fly. The study said the amount released is equivalent to 10 percent of the water already in the stratosphere.

“This is the first time this type of injection has occurred in the entire era of satellites,” which includes water vapor data dating back to 1995, said Luis Millán, lead author of the study and NASA atmospheric scientist. “We’ve never seen anything like it before, so it was pretty impressive.”

Volcanic eruptions expel many different types of gases and particles. Most eruptions, including Hunga Tonga, release particles that cool the Earth’s surface by reflecting sunlight back into space, but typically dissipate after two to three years. Very few, however, blow water vapor this high. This water vapor can stay longer in the atmosphere (five to 10 years) and trap heat on the Earth’s surface.

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Millán speculates that water vapor could begin to have a warming effect on the planet’s surface temperature once the accompanying cooling particles dissipate in about three years. He is not sure how much the temperature would rise, as it depends on how the plume of water vapor evolves. The team suspects that the increase in warming will last for a few years, until circulation patterns in the stratosphere pour water vapor back into the troposphere, the layer where Earth’s climate occurs.

“This is just a temporary warm-up, and then it will go back to what it was supposed to go back to,” Millán said. “It will not aggravate climate change.”

NASA atmospheric scientist Ryan Kramer added that given the numerous factors that determine temperature changes over time scales of years, the volcano’s warming effect could also get lost in noise, depending on its magnitude.

On a shorter one time scale, rising water vapor could also worsen ozone depletion in the stratosphere, said Susan Strahan, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and NASA.

Stratospheric ozone protects the Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet rays. Chemicals that deplete the ozone layer were largely eliminated by the 1987 Montreal Protocol and subsequent amendments.

Strahan, who was not involved in the study, explained that excess water vapor will affect many chemical reactions that control stratospheric ozone concentrations. NASA satellite data in July already shows a decrease in ozone levels, compared to those of previous years in the location where excess water vapor is most concentrated. He added that a full analysis would need to be conducted to find out the cause.

“There are probably some impacts right now, but what we need [is] a model to tell us is by what mechanism (s) the impacts occurred. Meteorology and chemistry will almost undoubtedly play both roles: the questions are: how much, where, when? Strahan said in an email.

Strahan also said that excess water vapor could increase the formation of special noctilucent clouds, which appear as shimmering ghostly wisps in the night sky. They are located about 50 miles in the atmosphere, higher than the stratosphere, and are some of the rarest, driest and tallest clouds on Earth. For many people, clouds offer incredible observation of the sky. However, the researchers believe that any noticeable changes in these clouds won’t appear until later, depending on how long it takes for water vapor to travel upward in the atmosphere where the clouds form.

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Overall, Millán said the excess water vapor isn’t much to worry about on its own, but “something interesting is going on.” He and his colleagues are taking this opportunity to test their computer models that help us understand climate change and weather forecasting in general.

“We have these huge amounts of water vapor moving in the stratosphere and we can test how well the patterns reflect its movements within the atmosphere,” Millán said. “This volcano will give a lot of work to many researchers.”

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