More than eight months after the undersea volcano near Tonga erupted on January 14, scientists are still analyzing the effects of the violent eruption and finding that it could be warming the planet.
Recently, researchers estimated that the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apa eruption spewed 50 million tons (45 million metric tons) of water vapor into the atmosphere, in addition to massive amounts of ash and volcanic gases. This massive injection of steam increased the amount of moisture in the global stratosphere by about 5% and could trigger a cycle of stratospheric cooling and surface warming — and those effects could persist for months, according to a new study.
The Tonga eruption, which began on January 13 and peaked two days later, was the most powerful witness on Earth in decades. The eruption extended for 162 miles (260 km) and sent plumes of ash, steam and gas flying more than 12 miles (20 km) in the air, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Large volcanic eruptions usually cool the planet by belching sulfur dioxide into the upper layers Earthatmosphere, which filters solar radiation. Particles of rock and ash can also temporarily cool the planet by blocking sunlight, according to the National Science Foundation. University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. In this way, extensive and violent volcanic activity in Earth’s distant past may have contributed to the global climate changetriggering mass extinctions millions of years ago.
Related: Huge underwater eruption of Tonga’s volcano captured in stunning satellite video
Recent eruptions have also been proven volcanoCooling forces of the planet. In 1991, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines blew its top, aerosols spewed from it powerful volcanic eruption lowered global temperatures by about 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) for at least a year, Live Science previously reported.
Tonga emitted about 441,000 tonnes (400,000 metric tons) of sulfur dioxide, about 2% of the launched from Mount Pinatubo during the 1991 eruption. But unlike Pinatubo (and most large volcanic eruptions, which occur on land), Tonga’s underwater volcanic plumes sent “significant amounts of water” into the stratosphere, the zone that extends from about 31 miles ( 50 km) above the Earth’s surface to about 4 to 12 miles (6 to 20 km), according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
In submarine volcanoes, “submarine eruptions can derive large parts of their explosive energy from the interaction of water and hot magma,” which pushes huge amounts of water and steam up the eruption column, scientists wrote in a new study published Sept. 22 in the newspaper Science. Within 24 hours of the explosion, the plume extended more than 17 miles (28 kilometers) into the atmosphere.
The researchers analyzed the amount of water in the plumes by evaluating data gathered by instruments called radiosondes, which were attached to weather balloons and sent high into the volcanic plumes. As these instruments ascend into the atmosphere, sensors measure them temperatureair pressure and relative humidity, transmitting that data to a receiver on the ground, according to NWS.
Atmospheric water vapor absorbs solar radiation and re-radiates it as heat. With tens of millions of tons of Tonga’s moisture now being pumped into the stratosphere, the Earth’s surface will warm — though it’s unclear how much, according to the study. But because the steam is lighter than other volcanic aerosols and less affected by the pull of gravity, it will take longer for this warming effect to dissipate, and surface warming could continue “for months to come,” the scientists said.
Previous research into the eruption found that Tonga spewed enough water vapor to fill 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and that this huge amount of atmospheric moisture could potentially weaken the ozone layerLive Science previously reported.
In the new study, the scientists also determined that these huge amounts of water vapor could indeed modify the chemical cycles that control stratospheric ozone, “however, detailed studies will be required to quantify the effect on the amount of ozone because other chemical reactions they may play a role as well.”
Originally published in Live Science.