Volcanic mountains

Tonga volcanic eruption could change Earth’s climate

On January 15, 2022, an underwater volcano violently erupted. According to data from a NASA satellitewater vapor from some 58,000 Olympic swimming pools was released into the atmosphere and into the stratosphere.


What do you want to know

  • On January 15, 2022, the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted
  • The volcano was located about 500 feet below the surface of the ocean
  • The violent eruption sent a huge plume of water vapor into the stratosphere
  • The impacts are expected to last a few years and could lead to global warming

We live on a very active planet, not only in the atmosphere, but inside the Earth. Due to plate tectonics and hotspots in the earth’s crust, we have earthquakes, mountains, valleys, oceans and volcanoes.

(Getty Images)

Some volcanoes can erupt violently. In the continental United States, the last violent eruption was Mount St. Helens in 1980. The last violent eruption on the planet occurred on January 15, 2022. The Tonga volcano was the strongest eruption since Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

The volcano was unique because it was under relatively shallow water about 500 feet below the surface. According to NASA measurements, the strength of the Tonga eruption was between 4 and 18 megatons. It’s hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped in World War II.

The force of the explosion caused significant damage to the nation of Tonga. Since it was in a shallow sea, it sent not just ash, but water vapor (the gaseous form of water) about 25 miles through the atmosphere and into the stratosphere.

While some volcanic eruptions can cool the planet due to ash blocking sunlight, some can warm the planet due to large amounts of water vapor being injected high into the stratosphere.

This may be the case with the Tonga eruption, due to the incredible amount of water vapor that reached the heights of the atmosphere.

In a study published in Geophysical Research Letters, scientists estimated that the Tonga eruption sent about 146 teragrams (or 161 million tonnes) of water vapor into the Earth’s stratosphere, or 10% of the water already in this layer. That’s four times the amount sent into the stratosphere by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo that impacted Earth’s climate.

Luis Millán, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said: “We’ve never seen anything like it.”

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