Tonga’s underwater volcano eruption was a “once-in-a-lifetime event” that could warm Earth’s surface, scientists say

Tonga’s underwater volcano eruption was a “once-in-a-lifetime event” that could warm Earth’s surface, scientists say

When an underwater volcano broke out in Tonga in January, its watery explosion was huge and unusual — and scientists are still trying to understand its impacts.

The volcano, known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, spewed millions of tons of water vapor into the atmosphere, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

The researchers estimate the eruption, which overcame the power of the Hiroshima atomic bombraised the amount of water in the stratosphere – the second layer of the atmosphere, above the range where humans live and breathe – by about 5%.

Now, scientists are trying to figure out how all that water might affect the atmosphere and whether it might warm the Earth’s surface in the next few years.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said lead author Holger Voemel, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

FILE PHOTO: Satellite view of an underwater volcano eruption off Tonga
The eruption of an underwater volcano in Tonga is seen in a NOAA GOES-West satellite image taken on January 15, 2022.

CIRA / NOAA / Apostille via REUTERS

Large eruptions often cool the planet. Most volcanoes emit large amounts of sulfur, which blocks the sun’s rays, explained Matthew Toohey, a climate researcher at the University of Saskatchewan who was not involved in the study.

The Tonga explosion was much more soggy: the eruption started under the ocean, then shot up a cloud with much more water than usual. And because water vapor acts like a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, the eruption will likely raise temperatures rather than lower them, Toohey said.

It is unclear how much heating may be reserved.

Karen Rosenlof, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was not involved in the study, said she expected the effects to be minimal and temporary.

“This amount of increase can warm the surface a little bit for a short period of time,” Rosenlof said in an email.

In August, scientists said it had broken “all records” for water vapor injection since satellites began recording this data – enough water vapor to fill 58,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Water vapor will remain in the upper atmosphere for a few years before reaching the lower atmosphere, Toohey said. Meanwhile, the extra water can also accelerate the loss of ozone in the atmosphere, Rosenlof added.

But it’s hard for scientists to say for sure, because they’ve never seen an eruption like this.

The stratosphere extends from about 7.5 miles to 31 miles above Earth and is generally very dry, explained Voemel.

Voemel’s team estimated the volcano’s plume using a network of instruments suspended from weather balloons. Typically, these tools can’t even measure water levels in the stratosphere because the amounts are so low, Voemel said.

Another research group monitored the explosion using an instrument on a NASA satellite. In their study, published earlier this summer, they estimated the eruption would be even bigger, adding about 150 million metric tons of water vapor to the stratosphere — three times more than what Voemel’s study found.

In that study, the scientists also concluded that the unprecedented plume could temporarily affect Earth’s average global temperature.

Voemel acknowledged that satellite images may have observed parts of the plume that the balloon’s instruments failed to capture, raising his estimate.

In any case, he said, the Tonga explosion was unlike anything seen in recent history, and studying its aftermath could provide new insights into our atmosphere.

An ISS image from January 16, 2022 shows the ash plume from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption that occurred the day before.


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