Volcano’s giant eruption did something unprecedented, says NASA

The blast was astonishing.

When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on Jan. 15, it sent shock waves around the planet. The imagery awed earth scientists. And now, researchers have found the eruption pumped enough water vapor into the atmosphere to fill a whopping 58,000 swimming pools — an amount never before observed.

The water reached a layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, higher than where big jetliners fly. The stratosphere exists between some eight to 33 miles above Earth’s surface.

“We’ve never seen anything like it.”

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Luis Millán, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the new research, said in a statement. Millán and his team used observations from NASA’s Aura satellite, an instrument that tracks gases in Earth’s atmosphere, to confirm the extreme water injection into the atmosphere.

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an ash plume from the the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcanic eruption


Credit: NASA

All that water from a single eruption will have a planetary, though small and temporary, climate impact. That’s because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps heat on the planet, similar to carbon dioxide, which is now skyrocketing in Earth’s atmosphere. This water vapor impact will “not be enough to noticeably exacerbate climate change effects,” NASA said.

(Today’s climate change is largely driven by human actions, not natural events like volcanic eruptions.)

Where did this bounty of water — which was nearly four times the amount the colossal 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo blew into the stratosphere — come from? Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is a submarine volcano, meaning the basin where the eruption occurs is underwater. It lies nearly 500 feet under the surface, giving the eruption vast amounts of water to violently blow into the sky.

If the eruption happened deeper, the enormous mass of seawater would have “muted” this immensely explosive eruption, NASA noted. But all the right elements came together, creating a blast that continues to amaze scientists.

Earth is wild.

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