(CNN) — The volcanic eruption in Tonga, one of the strongest on the planethas expelled so much water vapor into the atmosphere that it is likely to temporarily warm the Earth’s surface, according to detections from a NASA satellite.
When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano erupted on January 15, 65 kilometers north of Tonga’s capital, it triggered a tsunami and sonic boom that circled the globe twice .
The eruption sent a large plume of water vapor into the stratosphere, which is 8 to 33 miles (12 to 53 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. That was enough water to fill 58,000 Olympic swimming pools, according to NASA satellite detections.
The detection was made by the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite. The satellite measures water vapour, ozone and other atmospheric gases. After the eruption, scientists were surprised by the water vapor readings.
They calculate that the eruption brought 146 teragrams of water to the stratosphere. A teragram equals one trillion grams, and in this case it equals 10% of the water already in the stratosphere.
That’s almost four times the amount of water vapor that reached the stratosphere after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
A new study of water vapor results was published in July in Geophysical Research Letters.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” study author Luis Millán, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement. “We had to carefully inspect all the measurements on the column to make sure they were reliable.”
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The Microwave Limb Sounder instrument can measure the natural microwave signals of the Earth’s atmosphere and detect them even through thick ash clouds.
“MLS was the only instrument with dense enough coverage to capture the column of water vapor at the time it was produced, and the only one that was unaffected by ash released from the volcano,” said Millan.
The Aura satellite was launched in 2004 and has since measured only two volcanic eruptions that lifted a significant amount of water vapor into the atmosphere. But the water vapor from the 2008 Kasatochi eruption in Alaska and the 2015 Calbuco eruption in Chile dissipated fairly quickly.
Normally, powerful volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo or the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia cool the Earth’s surface temperature because the gas, dust, and ash they kick up reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere. space. This “volcanic winter” occurred after Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, triggering “the year without summer” in 1816.
The Tonga eruption was different because the water vapor it sent into the atmosphere can trap heat, potentially causing hotter surface temperatures. According to the researchers, the excess water vapor could remain in the stratosphere for several years.
Additional water vapor in the stratosphere could also lead to chemical reactions that temporarily contribute to the depletion of Earth’s protective ozone.
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Fortunately, the heating effect of the steam should be small and temporary, dissipating as the extra steam dries up. Researchers believe this is not enough to worsen existing conditions due to the climate crisis.
Researchers believe the main reason for the amount of water vapor being released is due to the depth of the volcano’s caldera, 150 meters below the ocean surface.
If it was too deep, the depth of the ocean would have silenced the eruption, and if it was too shallow, the amount of seawater heated by the erupting magma would not have matched what reached the stratosphere, the researchers said.
Scientists are still working to understand the unusual energy flare and all of its superlatives, including the hurricane winds that reached space.