The Tonga volcano spews enough water to fill 58,000 Olympic swimming pools into the stratosphere

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The violent eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in Tonga on January 15, 2022 injected an unprecedented amount of water directly into the stratosphere – enough to fill more than 58,000 Olympic swimming pools.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Luis Millán, an atmospheric scientist who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

When the volcano erupted, seawater came into direct contact with the erupting lava and was superheated, creating “explosive steam”.

An umbrella cloud generated by the submarine eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on January 2. 15,
(NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens using GOES imagery courtesy of NOAA and NESDIS)

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NASA scientists say the steam will linger for years, likely affecting Earth’s global average temperature. Normally, the steam takes about 2-3 years to dissipate, but the water from the January 15 eruption could take 5-10 years to evaporate.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai “may be the first observed volcanic eruption to impact climate not through surface cooling caused by volcanic sulfate aerosols, but rather through surface warming”, issued Millán’s hypothesis in an article.

Millán conducted a study examining how much water vapor the volcano injected into the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere between about 8 and 33 miles (12 and 53 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.

Millán and his colleagues found that the Tonga volcano sent about 146 tetragrams (1 tetragram equals one trillion grams) of water vapor into Earth’s stratosphere. The amount of water launched into the stratosphere is equal to 10% of the water already present in the atmospheric layer. Their research has been published in Geophysical Research Letters.

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The eruption came from a volcano more than 12 miles wide. A day before the massive eruption, Tongan authorities reported on Facebook that the volcano was in continuous eruption. In the post, they reported that the volcano was sending a 3 mile wide column plume of ash, steam and gas rising 35 miles into the atmosphere.

The researchers also noted how water vapor can weaken the ozone layer that protects life on Earth from the sun’s harmful rays.

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The study authors said it was still too early to predict the exact climatic effects of the Tonga eruption. “It is critical to continue monitoring volcanic gases from this and future eruption to better quantify their different roles in climate,” Millán wrote.

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