Tonga’s volcanic eruption in January provided enough water to fill more than 58,000 Olympic-size swimming pools – and could weaken the ozone layer.
Scientists who examined the amount of water vapor emitted by the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano described it as “unprecedented.”
The powerful steam was created when seawater in the South Pacific came into contact with the lava and became ‘superheated’.
The eruption set off sound waves that could be heard up to 6,200 miles away in Alaska in a sonic boom that went around the world twice.
In a new study, experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory predict that the amount of water could be enough to temporarily affect the global average temperature.
It can also temporarily stimulate chemical reactions in the atmosphere that exacerbate ozone depletion.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” says atmospheric scientist Dr Luis Millán.
In a new study, experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory predict that the amount of water expelled during the eruption could be enough to affect the global average temperature
Just before nightfall reached Tonga, the eruption (bottom left) set off sound waves that could be heard as far as Alaska 6,200 miles away in a sonic boom that went around the world twice.
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an underwater volcano in the South Pacific, spewed ash and other debris as far as 40 miles into the atmosphere when it erupted in January
In the study, published in Geophysical Survey Lettersdr. Millán and his colleagues estimate that Tonga’s eruption sent about 146 million tons of water vapor into the stratosphere.
The stratosphere is the layer of the atmosphere between about 8 and 33 miles (12 and 53 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.
Water from the January 15 eruption corresponds to about 10 percent of the water content already present in the stratosphere.
Comparable amounts of water have only been blasted through volcanoes to such great heights twice before in the 18 years that NASA has been taking measurements.
These were the 2008 Kasatochi event in Alaska and the 2015 Calbuco eruption in Chile.
The water from these events quickly dissipated, but NASA researchers claim that the liquid from the Tonga volcano can remain in the stratosphere for up to ten years.
A: The water vapor entered the stratosphere mainly in the tropics, where rising dry and moist air is recorded in annual cycles. The vapor from the eruption disrupted this “heartbeat” signal. B: Time series of near-global water vapor at atmospheric pressures of 100 and 31 hPa using data from MLS and GOZCARDS
The eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai caused many effects such as atmospheric waves, extreme winds and unusual electric currents, which were felt all over the world and in space
To determine the volume of water vapor, scientists analyzed data from the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite.
It measures atmospheric gases, including water vapor and ozone, by observing natural microwave signals emitted from the Earth’s atmosphere.
The researchers noticed that the readings increased dramatically after the Tonga volcano erupted.
dr. Millán, who manages the instrument from Pasadena, California, USA, said: “We had to carefully inspect all measurements in the plume to make sure they were reliable.
“MLS was the only instrument with a dense enough cover to capture the water vapor plume as it happened, and the only one unaffected by the ash the volcano released.”
Ash from the Tonga eruption was seen from SPACE
Ash spewed into the air by the massive underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga was photographed by astronauts from the International Space Station.
NASA shared the remarkable photos taken from the windows of the ISS Cupola, which showed a blanket of ash from plumes spewing thousands of meters into the atmosphere.
The event was so striking that satellites captured the moment of the eruption, while astronauts on the ISS captured images of plumes and ash blankets over the region.
Read more: Ash from Tonga volcanic eruption is seen from SPACE
When the water molecules in the stratosphere break down, reactive hydrogen oxide molecules are released.
These themselves react with ozone and destroy it, but also convert chlorine-containing gases into other destructive molecules.
Water vapor also traps heat, so the eruption could lead to a temporary warming effect on Earth’s surface, for what the researchers believe is the first time.
Although it is considered a “greenhouse gas,” like carbon dioxide and methane, any warming would not be enough to exacerbate the effects of climate change.
This is because the heat would dissipate as the extra water cycled out of the stratosphere naturally.
Conversely, previous massive volcanic eruptions, such as Krakatoa, have radiated ash, dust and gases into the atmosphere that reflect sunlight back into space, causing a cooling effect.
Writing in the paper, Dr Millán said, “It is critical to continue monitoring the volcanic gases from this and future eruptions to better quantify their different roles in climate.”
The researchers believe the Tonga volcano was only able to produce the massive amounts of water vapor it did because of its precise depth underwater.
The caldera – the large crater formed as magma begins to erupt – is believed to be about 150 meters down.
If it had been shallower, there wouldn’t be enough seawater superheated by the magma to account for the amount of stratospheric water vapor.
However, any deeper eruption and ocean pressure could have dampened the violent eruption.
Radar surveys before and after the eruption show only small parts of two uninhabited Tongan islands above the volcano – Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai
WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE TONGA ERROR IN JANUARY?
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an underwater volcano in the South Pacific, spewed debris as far as 25 miles into the atmosphere when it erupted on Jan. 15.
It caused an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale, sending tsunami waves crashing onto the island, covering it with ash and cutting it off from outside help.
It also released anywhere from 5 to 30 megatons (5 million to 30 million tons) of TNT equivalent, according to NASA Earth Observatory.
Digital elevation maps from the NASA Earth Observatory also show the dramatic changes at Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, the upper part of a large underwater volcano.
Prior to the explosion earlier this month, the two uninhabited islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai were joined by a volcanic cone to form a single landmass.
Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai are themselves remnants of the northern and western rim of the volcano’s caldera — the cavity that forms shortly after the emptying of a magma chamber.
NASA said the eruption “destroyed” the volcanic island about 40 miles north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, on Tongatapu Island (Tonga’s main island).
It covered the island nation of about 100,000 people in a layer of toxic ash, poisoned drinking water, destroyed crops and completely destroyed at least two villages.
It also claimed at least three lives in Tonga and resulted in the drowning of two beachgoers in Peru after freak waves hit the South American country.
Peruvian authorities have declared an environmental disaster after waves hit an oil tanker that was unloading near Lima, creating a huge sludge along the coast.