Water erupted from the undersea volcano Tonga could weaken the ozone layer, scientists warn

The volcanic eruption of Tonga in January blew up enough water to fill more than 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools and could weaken the ozone layer.

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

The powerful steam formed when seawater in the South Pacific came into contact with lava and “overheated.”

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 may be sufficient to temporarily affect the global average temperature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an underwater volcano in the South Pacific, erupted ash and other debris up to 25 miles into the atmosphere when it exploded 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 approximately 8 and 33 miles (12 and 53 kilometers) above the earth’s surface.

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

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

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

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

A: Water vapor entered the stratosphere mainly in the tropics, where the increase in dry and humid air is recorded in annual cycles.  The steam from the eruption interrupted this signal of

A: Water vapor entered the stratosphere mainly in the tropics, where the increase in dry and humid air is recorded in annual cycles. The vapor from the eruption interrupted this “heartbeat” signal. B: Time series of near global water vapor 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, the 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 noted that the readings increased dramatically after the Tonga volcano erupted.

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

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

The ash from the Tonga eruption was seen from SPACE

Ash sent spewing into the air from the massive undersea volcanic eruption in Tonga was photographed by astronauts from the International Space Station.

NASA shared the extraordinary photos taken from the windows of the ISS Dome, which show a blanket of ash from plumes spewing thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

The event was so surprising that satellites captured the moment of the eruption, with astronauts on the ISS taking plume and ash-covered images of the region.

Read more: The ash of the volcanic eruption in Tonga is seen from SPACE

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

These react and destroy ozone on their own, but they also convert chlorine-containing gases into other destructive molecules.

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

Although considered 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 excess water was naturally expelled from the stratosphere.

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

In the article, Dr. Millán wrote: “It is essential to continue monitoring the volcanoes of this eruption and future gas volcanoes to better quantify their different roles in the climate.”

Researchers believe that the Tonga volcano was capable of producing only the large amounts of water vapor it produced due to its precise depth underwater.

Its caldera – the large crater that formed during the eruption of magma – is thought to be about 150 meters below.

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

However, greater depth and ocean pressure could have cushioned 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 large part above the volcano's water are 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 underwater volcano in the South Pacific, erupted debris up to 25 miles into the atmosphere when it erupted on January 15.

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

According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, it also released 5 to 30 megatons (5 million to 30 million tons) of TNT equivalent.

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

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

Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai are themselves remnants of the northern and western rim of the volcano’s caldera, the cavity that forms shortly after the emptying of a magma chamber.

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

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

It also claimed at least three casualties in Tonga and resulted in the drowning of two bathers in Peru after rogue waves hit the South American country.

Peruvian authorities declared an environmental disaster after waves hit an unloading oil tanker near Lima, creating a huge patch of sea along the coast.