The Tonga Eruption and its effect on Earth

The Tonga Eruption and its effect on Earth

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — On January 14, 2022 a massive underwater volcano erupted and ejected a mass amount of water vapor into the atmosphere.

The Hung Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Volcano is responsible for spewing 146 tera-grams of water vapor into the stratosphere, which is equivalent to about 10% of the water vapor found within that layer of the atmosphere. This is significant because water vapor is a greenhouse gas of great abundance and strength. Before we dive into how that could affect our planet, let’s go into the basics on what greenhouse gases are.

Greenhouse gases are essential for our planet as without them life would be very hard to come by on Earth. They were discovered by French physicist and mathematician, Joseph Fourier. Fourier knew that Earth’s average temperature was approximately 15 degrees Celsius (or 50 degrees Fahrenheit), but his calculations found out that it should be closer to -18 degrees Celsius, or zero degrees Fahrenheit. These greenhouse gasses play an essential role within our atmosphere as they keep the Earth warm and viable for life. These gases include; water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), ozone (O3), and methane (CH4). During the day, the sun emits solar radiation. That solar radiation is then absorbed by the Earth’s surface and then released at night.

Without greenhouse gases the infrared energy, or warmth, is able to freely escape back into space. However with greenhouse gases present, they will absorb and re-emit some of that ‘warmth’ back down to Earth’s surface which is what keeps us warm.

The quantity of these greenhouse gases is very small compared to the entire atmospheric composition of Earth. Earth’s atmosphere consists of 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, about .96% Argon, and the remaining .04% consists of those greenhouse gases. Then, of those greenhouse gases; approximately 60% is Water Vapor, 20% is Carbon Dioxide, 12% is methane, and the remaining 8% is Ozone.

Of those greenhouse gases, water vapor is the most abundant and strongest. The reason why water vapor is the strongest is because it absorbs the most infrared wavelengths.

With the basic knowledge of greenhouse gases, let’s get back to the Tonga eruption. To refresh the Tonga eruption ejected nearly 146 tera-grams of water vapor into the stratosphere, which is about 10% of the vapor found within that layer of the atmosphere. This is because the volcano was located at just the right depth below the ocean (~150 meters below) to super heat the water above and release it a massive steam. This is unusual for volcanoes as they typically release volcanic plume and ash which would block the sun’s rays and create a cooling effect. However, this massive release of water vapor may have had the opposite effect on our global surface temperatures.

Thus far in 2023, globally we have had the warmest June, July, August, September, and October on record. 2023 is likely to become the warmest year on record too, and by a long shot.

So what is up with this recent spike? What is causing this anomalous warmth? The answer very much could be the Tonga Eruption.

According to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) “State of the Climate in 2022” September release it states:

“It is estimated that the HTHH (Tonga Eruption) increases the likelihood of exceeding an annual mean global surface temperature anomaly of 1.5C by 7% in the first five years following the eruption.”

This is because the excess water vapor within the stratosphere will have the opposite effect within the Troposphere. Within the same journal mentioned above, it also mentioned that the “Elevated stratospheric water vapor concentrations are expected to affect the surface climate and tropospheric temperatures in a manner opposite to their stratospheric impacts.”

Right after the eruption, measurements near the eruption in the stratosphere saw a record cooling effect which leads us to know that we will see some sort of warming at the surface. It is also said that the water vapor concentrations did not reach the northern hemisphere until the end of 2022. This leads us to think that the recent warming in the Northern Hemisphere is due to the Tonga Eruption.

Now is it the only reason? Likely not. But it has most likely played a major role in the recent warming spike around the globe due to that massive release of water vapor. Studies are currently being conducted to understand the full impact and the duration of this event as these impacts could last for years. For those interested on reading up on the “State of the Climate in 2022” journal from BAMS, I will include a link here.