Scientists warn that water spewed from Tonga’s underwater volcano could weaken the ozone layer

In a new study, experts from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory predict that the volume of water expelled during the eruption could be enough to affect the average global temperature.

Tonga’s volcanic eruption in January released enough water to fill more than 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools and could weaken the ozone layer.

Scientists who examined the amount of water vapor spewed from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano described it as “unprecedented”.

The powerful steam formed when seawater from the South Pacific came into contact with the lava and was “superheated”.

The eruption created sound waves heard as far as Alaska 6,200 miles away, in a sonic boom that circled the globe twice.

In a new study, experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory predict that the volume of water could be enough to temporarily affect the global average temperature.

It could also temporarily increase chemical reactions in the atmosphere that worsen ozone depletion.

“We have never seen anything like it,” said atmospheric scientist Dr Luis Millán.

In a new study, experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory predict that the volume of water expelled during the eruption could be enough to affect the average global temperature.

Just before night fell on Tonga, the eruption (bottom left) created sound waves heard as far as Alaska 6,200 miles away, in a sonic boom that circled the world twice.

Just before night fell on Tonga, the eruption (bottom left) created sound waves heard as far as Alaska 6,200 miles away, in a sonic boom that circled the world twice.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, an undersea volcano in the South Pacific, spewed ash and other debris up to 25 miles into the atmosphere when it erupted in January.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an undersea volcano in the South Pacific, spewed ash and other debris up to 25 miles into the atmosphere when it erupted in January.

In the study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, Dr. Millán and his colleagues estimate that the Tonga eruption sent about 146 million tons of water vapor into the stratosphere.

The stratosphere is the layer of the atmosphere between about 8 and 33 miles (12 and 53 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.

The water from the January 15 eruption is equivalent to approximately 10% of the water content already present in the stratosphere.

Comparable amounts of water have only been spewed at such high altitudes by volcanoes twice before in the 18 years NASA has been taking measurements.

These were the 2008 Kasatochi event in Alaska and the 2015 Calbuco eruption in Chile.

The water from these events dissipated quickly, but NASA researchers claim that liquid from the Tonga volcano could remain in the stratosphere for up to ten years.

A: Water vapor entered the stratosphere primarily in the tropics, where the increase in dry and moist air is recorded in annual cycles.  Steam from the eruption has interrupted this signal from

A: Water vapor entered the stratosphere primarily in the tropics, where the increase in dry and moist air is recorded in annual cycles. Steam from the eruption has disrupted this “heartbeat” signal. B: Time series of near-global water vapor at atmospheric pressures of 100 and 31 hPa using MLS and GOZCARDS data

The eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai caused many effects, including atmospheric waves, extreme winds and unusual electrical currents, which were felt around the world and in space.

The eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai caused many effects, including atmospheric waves, extreme winds and unusual electrical currents, which were felt around the world and in space.

To determine the volume of water vapor, scientists analyzed data from the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite.

This measures atmospheric gases, including water vapor and ozone, by observing natural microwave signals emitted from the Earth’s atmosphere.

The researchers noticed that the readings increased dramatically after the Tonga volcano erupted.

Dr Millán, who runs the instrument from Pasadena, California, USA, said: “We had to carefully inspect all plume measurements to make sure they were reliable.

“MLS was the only instrument with dense enough coverage to capture the plume of water vapor as it happened, and the only one that was not affected by the ash the volcano released.”

Ashes from the Tonga eruption were seen from SPACE

Astronauts on the International Space Station photographed ash sent into the air by Tonga’s massive underwater volcanic eruption.

NASA shared the extraordinary images taken from the windows of the ISS dome, showing a blanket of ash plumes being thrown thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

The event was so shocking that satellites captured the moment of the eruption, and ISS astronauts took pictures of ash plumes and blankets over the region.

Read more: Ash from Tonga’s volcanic eruption seen from SPACE

When water molecules break down in the stratosphere, they release reactive hydrogen oxide molecules.

These react and destroy ozone themselves, but also convert chlorine-containing gases into other destructive molecules.

Water vapor also traps heat, so the eruption could cause a temporary warming effect on Earth’s surface, in what researchers think may be a first.

Although it counts as a “greenhouse gas”, like carbon dioxide and methane, any warming would not be enough to exacerbate the effects of climate change.

This is because the heat would dissipate as the additional water naturally exited the stratosphere.

By contrast, previous massive volcanic eruptions, such as Krakatoa, spewed ash, dust and gases into the atmosphere that reflected sunlight back into space and produced a cooling effect.

In the paper, Dr. Millán wrote: “It is essential to continue monitoring the volcanic gases from this and future eruptions to better quantify their different roles in the climate.”

Researchers believe that the Tonga volcano was only able to produce the large amounts of water vapor that it did because of its precise depth underwater.

Its caldera, the large crater that formed as magma begins to erupt, is believed to be about 150 meters below.

If it were shallower, there would not have been enough magma-superheated seawater to account for the volume of stratospheric water vapor.

However, the greater depth and pressure of the ocean could have silenced the violent eruption.

The volcanic island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai was built by underwater eruptions.  Two islands were joined by an eruption in 2015 into a single landmass
Now, the only major part of the volcano above water is the uninhabited twin islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai.

Radar surveys before and after the eruption show that only small parts of two uninhabited Tongan islands remain above the volcano: Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai.

WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE JANUARY TONGA ERUPTION?

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an undersea volcano in the South Pacific, threw debris up to 25 miles into the atmosphere when it erupted on January 15.

It triggered a 7.4-magnitude earthquake, which sent tsunami waves into the island, leaving it covered in ash and cut off from outside aid.

It also released between 5 and 30 megatons (5 to 30 million tons) of TNT equivalent, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Digital elevation maps from NASA’s Earth Observatory also show the dramatic changes at Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, the highest part of a large submarine volcano.

Before the explosion earlier this month, the uninhabited twin islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai were merged by a volcanic cone to form a single land mass.

Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai are themselves remnants of the north and west rims of the volcano’s caldera, the hollow that forms shortly after a magma chamber is emptied.

NASA said the eruption “wiped out” the volcanic island about 41 miles (65 km) north of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa on the island of Tongatapu (Tonga’s main island) .

It covered the island kingdom of about 100,000 people in a layer of toxic ash, poisoning drinking water, destroying crops and completely wiping out at least two villages.

It has also claimed at least three lives in Tonga and caused the drowning deaths of two beachgoers in Peru after freak waves hit the South American country.

Peruvian authorities have declared an environmental disaster after waves hit an offloading oil tanker near Lima, creating a large stain on the coast.

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