According to the findings of scientists, the volcanic eruption in January caused water vapour to be discharged into the stratosphere, which may have a slight and temporary warming effect.
On Thursday, researchers announced their findings that the underwater volcano eruption that occurred in the Pacific Ocean in January, which was so large that it caused a global shock wave, also sent massive volumes of water vapour into the upper atmosphere, which may have contributed to a temporary increase in the global temperature. Scientists issued a warning that the introduction of at least 55 million metric tonnes of water vapour into the stratosphere might momentarily result in an increase in the rate of ozone layer depletion.
On the 15th of January, the island nation of Tonga witnessed the most significant eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in several decades. As the shock wave travelled around the planet, it caused variations in air pressure that led to the triggering of further tsunamis in distant locations, some of which were generated thousands of kilometres away. One of these tsunamis caused widespread devastation on the island nation of Tonga.
Because it was only 500 feet below the surface, the water that was above the superheated molten rock exploded violently into steam. This caused the molten rock to erupt. The volcanic eruption produced a column of ash, gas, and steam that reached a height of 35 miles. As a result, there was a five per cent increase in the amount of water vapour in the stratosphere (which begins at an altitude of 31 miles).
Holger Vomel, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, commented, “It’s completely unprecedented.” Since we first developed the ability to measure water vapour in the stratosphere, which was somewhere around 70 years ago, we have never seen anything like this. Dr Vomel is the author of an article that was published in Science, which details the conclusions of the study.
As is the case with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, water vapour is capable of re-emitting infrared light that it has previously taken in from the surface of the Earth. A significant rise in the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere would very certainly result in an increase in temperature for an extended period of time, possibly even years until the gas dissipated.
Even though big land-based volcanic eruptions do not produce a significant amount of water vapour, they nonetheless have the potential to have a short cooling effect because they inject vast quantities of sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, it caused a drop of one degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) in the average temperature of the earth that lasted for approximately one year.
Dr Vomel emphasised that it is far too early to make any projections regarding the amount of additional heating that will be caused by the Tonga eruption. He hypothesised that the magnitude might be comparable to that of Pinatubo, but he mentioned that it might have taken place in the opposite direction. In addition to this, he noted that the additional warming will most likely continue for a longer period of time than the cooling did after Pinatubo.
According to Susan Solomon, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who described the temperature impacts of changes in stratospheric water vapour in a 2010 study, the eruption in Tonga “could add something on the order of 0.05 degrees of warming to global average temperatures.” This warming is expected to continue for at least the next three to five years.
She made the observation that the warming that was expected to occur as a result of carbon dioxide was more in the range of 0.1 to 0.2 degrees each decade. On the other hand, Dr Solomon did not make any contributions to the research that was carried out in Tonga.
It is anticipated that the chemical processes that deplete ozone, which is an oxygen molecule that shields the Earth’s biota from the damaging rays of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, may shift as a result of the abundance of water vapour in the atmosphere. According to Dr Vomel, ozone levels can be reduced if there is a significant increase in the amount of water vapour that is present in the atmosphere. Because the production of ozone and its subsequent destruction “is a cycle that keeps continuing,” he warned that this would only be a temporary solution.
According to Dr Solomon, the surface cooling that would come from the loss of ozone near the boundary between the stratosphere and the lower atmosphere would more than compensate for the warming that would be caused by an increase in the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere.
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According to the findings of a study that was published in July, the Tonga eruption spewed over 160 million tonnes of water vapour into the atmosphere. This is approximately three times more than what was previously estimated.
The levels of water vapour all over the world were recorded daily by a NASA satellite, and the findings of those measurements were used in the study that was previously described. In contrast, Dr Vomel and the members of his team used data that was collected by instruments that were encased in very small packages known as radiosondes and were carried into the air by balloons. Radiosondes are launched into the atmosphere at predetermined times and intervals, often once every 12 hours, by weather stations located all over the world.
The implementation of this technique was made possible by the routine balloon launches that took place from Australia, Fiji, and other locations that were geographically close enough to the eruption to allow the equipment to be carried into the volcanic plume. It was also beneficial that the plume contained exceptionally high concentrations of water vapour. According to Dr Vomel, you cannot use radiosondes to monitor water vapour in the stratosphere. This conclusion was reached by the researcher. Put an end to this train of thought. In any case, this was such a big event that it is difficult to fathom how it could have occurred.
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He asserted that the estimate of 55 million tonnes that was offered by his team was conservative and that the true number might be twice as large as that. In spite of the fact that it is lower than the initial estimation, he assuaged our concerns by saying that the disparity “probably would not be that large.”
When questioned about the disparity in the predictions made by the two pieces of research, he responded by saying that “This is just scientific conversation.” If we wait until the smoke clears, we might be able to pick up some new information.
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