On January 15th, 2022, the Hunga Tonga, Hunga Ha’apai volcano exploded in the nation of Tonga in what was the largest volcanic eruption of the 21st century.
This eruption obliterated the existing island, causing a 4 kilometer wide section of ground to drop by 750 meters or 2,460 feet.
Although the size of the eruption which occurred on that day is still unclear, it had a volcanic explosivity index of either a 5 or a 6. In other words, what occurred on that eventful day is likely to represent the largest or 2nd largest explosive volcanic eruption, that any of us will witness in our lifetimes.
While larger recent explosive eruptions have occurred, such as Novarupta in 1912 or Krakatau in 1883. Eruptions of that magnitude only occur about once every 60 to 65 years.
While this eruption caused numerous long term effects such as leading to unusually vivid sunsets around the globe, it also rewrote a number of facts. Scientists thought we knew about volcanoes
One such unusual discovery relates to how the eruption effected the atmosphere Normally when a large explosive eruption occurs. It sometimes ejects such large quantities of sulfur aerosols that it forms a temporary layer around the planet.
This is turn reflects a percentage of sunlight leading to a decrease in temperature. For a few years, Examples of temporary cooling caused by volcanic eruptions occurred in 1815, 1883 and 1991.
For example, the 1991 caldera forming eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines was responsible for the most recent drop in temperatures, as it temporarily lowered temperatures worldwide by 0.5 degrees Celsius For comparison. Most estimates of the Hunga Tonga eruption place it at about the same size of Pinatubo’s, 1991 eruption, potentially a bit smaller or larger.
However, whereas Mount Pinatubo ejected 20 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, the Hunga Tonga, Hunga Ha’apai eruption only ejected 450,000 tons and was ash poor. This smaller figure is generally insufficient to cause global cooling.
Looking at the climatic eruption plume from January 15th, you might notice something peculiar, Whereas similar plinian eruption plumes have a gray color. This plume was remarkably white owing to an abundance of water vapor in the plume. Instead of ash.
Since water vapor is a natural greenhouse gas, the explosive eruption of Hunga Tonga, Hunga Ha’apai, might truly be the first recorded VEI 5 explosive eruption to actually warm rather than cool the planet Erupting from a several kilometer wide island and shallow caldera.
The volcano exploded outwards and upwards ejecting significant quantities of seawater around and above the eruption site and sending it high into the stratosphere.
While much of the ejected water did not reach the stratosphere, an impressive 146 million metric tons of it did. While this only equates to a volume of 0.146 cubic kilometers, if it was all liquid water, the stratosphere does not typically hold much water vapor, meaning that this seemingly small injection into the stratosphere had a large impact.
In other words, the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere has increased by around 10 % due to the eruption, and this will remain there for as much as a decade causing a slight warming of the planet. This will occur due to the greenhouse effect, as the increased concentration of water molecules will cause a higher concentration of solar radiation directed into space to instead bounce back to earth.
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