The Tonga volcano has spewed an unprecedented amount of water into the atmosphere


The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption lasted less than a day, but released the largest amount of water vapor into a volcano’s atmosphere on record. Researchers say the explosion could temporarily warm surface temperatures for years to come and also deplete stratospheric ozone.

On January 15, the underwater volcano erupted and sent a shock wave who traveled the world. The powerful explosion ejected aerosols, gas, steam and ash 36 miles high, likely the highest volcanic plume in the satellite recordings. The blast damaged more than 100 homes and killed at least three people on the island of Tonga. A new study it also shows that the volcano has released an unprecedented amount of water vapor, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat on Earth.

NASA satellite data shows the volcano has spewed more than 146 teragrams of water, enough to fill 58,000 Olympic swimming pools, into the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, known as the stratosphere, where the layer is located. ozone and just above it. planes fly. The study indicated that the amount released is equivalent to 10% of the water already present in the stratosphere.

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

Volcanic eruptions expel many 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 these usually dissipate after two to three years. However, very few expel water vapor that high. This water vapor can persist longer in the atmosphere (five to ten years) and trap heat on the Earth’s surface.

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Millán speculates that the 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. You don’t know how much the temperature would rise, because it depends on the evolution of the water vapor plume. The team suspects that the increase in warming will last for a few years, until circulation patterns in the stratosphere push water vapor into the troposphere, the layer where Earth’s weather is produced.

“It’s just a temporary warm-up and then it’ll go back to what it was supposed to be back to,” Millan said. “It’s not going to make climate change worse.”

NASA atmospheric scientist Ryan Kramer added that given the many factors that drive temperature changes on time scales of years, the volcano’s heating effect could also be lost in the noise, in depending on its magnitude.

in short On a time scale, increased water vapor could also worsen ozone depletion in the stratosphere, said Susan Strahan, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and the Nasa.

Stratospheric ozone protects the Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet rays. Chemicals that deplete the ozone layer were largely eliminated by the Montreal Protocol of 1987 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 for July already shows a decrease in ozone levels, compared to previous years when excess water vapor is more concentrated. He added that a full analysis must be carried out to unravel the cause.

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

Strahan also said that excess water vapor could promote the formation of special noctilescent clouds, which appear as ghostly, glowing streaks in the night sky. They occur about 50 miles in the atmosphere, higher than the stratosphere, and are among the rarest, driest, and tallest clouds on Earth. For many people, clouds provide an extraordinary view of the sky. However, researchers think any noticeable changes in these clouds would not be apparent until later, depending on how long it takes for water vapor to rise into the atmosphere where the clouds are forming.

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Overall, Millán said the excess water vapor was not really concerning in itself, but “something interesting was going on.” He and his colleagues are taking the opportunity to test their computer models that help us understand climate change and weather forecasting in general.

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

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