Tonga Volcanic Eruption Blows 58,000 Pools of Water into the Atmosphere

Tonga Volcanic Eruption Blows 58,000 Pools of Water into the Atmosphere

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano released an incredible 38 billion or more gallons of water into the atmosphere, enough to fill 58,000 Olympic swimming pools.

The Jan. 15 eruption was one of the largest on record in 140 years, generating a shock wave that circled the Earth six times and sent a plume of ash and steam 30 miles high in the atmosphere.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory atmospheric scientist Luis Millán said in a statement.

Dr. Millán led a new study published in the journal Geophysical research papers which quantified the amount of water vapor that the Tonga volcano injected into the layer of the atmosphere between about 8 and 33 miles high, also known as the stratosphere. The study used data from NASA’s Aura satellite, which measures air quality, ozone and trace gases using its Microwave Sounder (MLS) instrument.

Using microwave frequencies allows the MLS instrument to study vertical columns of the atmosphere and see through clouds, ash or other materials that would block visual observations.

The 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 released by the volcano,” said the Dr. Millán

The study found that the amount of water released into the atmosphere by the eruption is equivalent to 10% of the water vapor already present in the stratosphere. That was four times the amount of water vapor released into the air by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

Unlike the Pinatubo eruption, or the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, the Tonga eruption is unlikely to cool Earth’s climate, according to a NASA blog. The Tonga eruption did not inject as much sunlight that blocked aerosols and ash into the atmosphere as those previous eruptions, while the massive amount of water vapor can trap more heat in the atmosphere and cause temporary warming.

The massive amount of water vapor could remain aloft for several years and could alter the chemistry of the upper atmosphere, including temporarily depleting the ozone layer.

The reason the Tonga eruption produced so much water vapor relative to other large volcanic eruptions is because of the location of the volcano: the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai caldera was 490 feet below the surface of the ocean, the perfect depth to generate a massive steam plume. , according to NASA.

“Any shallower depth and there would not have been enough seawater superheated by the erupting magma,” the blog noted. Any deeper, and the immense pressures in the deep ocean could have dampened the eruption.”

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