Giant volcano eruption did something unprecedented, NASA says

The explosion was amazing.

When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on January 15, it sent shock waves around the planet. The images impressed Earth scientists. And now researchers have found that the eruption pumped enough water vapor into the atmosphere to fill a whopping 58,000 pools — an amount never seen before.

The water has reached a layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, higher than where large airliners fly. The stratosphere exists between about eight and 33 miles above the Earth’s surface.

“We have never seen anything like it.”

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Luis Millán, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the new research, said in a statement. Millán and his team used observations from NASA’s Aura satellite, an instrument that tracks gases in Earth’s atmosphere, to confirm the extreme injection of water into the atmosphere.

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Credit: NASA

All that water from a single eruption will have a planetary climate impact, albeit small and temporary. That’s because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps heat on the planet, similar to carbon dioxide, which shoots up in Earth’s atmosphere. This water vapor impact “will not be sufficient to materially exacerbate the effects of climate change,” NASA said.

(Today’s climate change is largely due to human actions, not natural events like volcanic eruptions.)

Where did this abundance of water come from – which was nearly four times the amount that the colossal eruption of Mount Pinatubo blew into the stratosphere in 1991? Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is a submarine volcano, which means that the basin where the eruption occurs is under water. It sits nearly 500 feet below the surface, giving the eruption large amounts of water that blow violently into the sky.

Had the eruption occurred deeper, the huge mass of seawater would have “smothered” this immensely explosive eruption, NASA noted. But all the right elements came together, creating an explosion that continues to amaze scientists.

The Earth is wild.

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