Water blown from Tonga’s underwater volcano could weaken ozone layer, scientists warn

TongaJanuary’s volcanic eruption blew out enough water to fill more than 58,000 Olympic swimming pools – and could weaken the ozone layer.

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

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

The eruption created sound waves heard up to 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 stimulate chemical reactions in the atmosphere that worsen ozone depletion.

“We’ve 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 global average temperature

Just before nightfall reached Tonga, the eruption (lower left) created sound waves heard as far away as Alaska 6,200 miles away, in a sonic boom that made twice the circumnavigation of the globe.

Just before nightfall reached Tonga, the eruption (lower left) created sound waves heard as far away as Alaska 6,200 miles away, in a sonic boom that made twice the circumnavigation of the globe.

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 LettersDr. 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 about 10% of the water content already in the stratosphere.

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

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

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

A: Water vapor entered the stratosphere primarily in the tropics, where the rise of dry and moist air is recorded in annual cycles.  Steam from the eruption disrupted this

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

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

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption caused many effects, such as atmospheric waves, extreme winds and unusual electric 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 the natural microwave signals emitted by the Earth’s atmosphere.

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

Dr Millán, who operates the instrument from Pasadena, California, USA, said: ‘We had to carefully inspect all the measurements in the plume to make sure they were trustworthy.

“MLS was the only instrument with dense enough coverage to capture the water vapor plume as it occurred, and the only one that was unaffected by the ash released from the volcano.”

Ash from Tonga eruption seen from SPACE

Ash sent into the air by the huge underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga has been photographed by astronauts from the International Space Station.

Nasa shared the remarkable images taken from the windows of the ISS cupola, showing a blanket of ash from plumes spewing thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

The event was so striking that satellites captured the moment of the eruption, with ISS astronauts snapping images of plumes and ash blankets above the region.

Read more: Ash from volcanic eruption in Tonga seen from SPACE

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

These react with ozone and destroy it on their own, 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, for what researchers believe is the first time.

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

This is because the heat would dissipate as the extra water was naturally removed from the stratosphere.

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

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

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

Its caldera – the large crater formed when magma begins to erupt – is thought to be around 150 meters (490 ft) below.

If it had been shallower, there wouldn’t have been enough magma-superheated seawater to account for the volume of stratospheric water vapour.

However, deeper and ocean pressure could have dampened 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 above the water of the volcano are the uninhabited twin islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai

Radar readings 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 TONGA ERUPTION IN JANUARY?

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

It triggered a 7.4 magnitude earthquake, sending tsunami waves crashing across the island, leaving it covered in ash and cut off from outside help.

It also released between 5 and 30 megatons (5–30 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 Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai were merged by a volcanic cone to form one land mass.

Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai are themselves remnants of the northern and western edges of the volcano’s caldera – the trough that forms shortly after a magma chamber has been emptied.

NASA said the eruption had “obliterated” the volcanic island about 65 km north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa on the island of Tongatapu (Tonga’s main island).

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

It also killed at least three people in Tonga and resulted in the drowning of two bathers in Peru after freak waves hit the South American country.

Peruvian authorities have declared an environmental disaster after waves hit an unloading tanker near Lima, creating a huge slick along the coast.