“We’ve never seen anything like it,” says a NASA scientist as Tonga’s volcano sent tons of water into the stratosphere

According to NASA scientists, the violent eruption of Tonga’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano injected an unprecedented amount of water directly into the stratosphere — and the vapor will remain there for years, likely affecting the Earth’s climate patterns.

The massive amount of water vapor is approximately 10% of the normal amount of vapor found in the stratosphere, which is equivalent to more than 58,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said atmospheric scientist Luis Millán, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Millán led a study of the water emitted by the volcano, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

The volcano emitted vapor and gases to unprecedented heights

The Jan. 15 eruption was caused by a volcano more than 12 miles wide, with a caldera 500 feet below sea level. Tongan officials reported the volcano was still erupting, sending a 3-mile-wide plume of steam and ash into the sky the day before. Then came the big bang, sending ash, gases, and vapor as high as 35 miles into the atmosphere — a satellite-era record.

Drone footage and other videos from that day show how big the blast was and how far the volcano’s smoke plume went into the sky. The powerful eruption caused a pressure wave to circle the Earth and a sonic boom that could be heard as far away as Alaska.

Because there is so much water, temperatures are likely to rise

Large volcanic eruptions in the past have changed the climate, but they usually make it cooler because they send aerosols into the stratosphere that scatter light. These aerosols are kind of like a thick layer of sunblock. But because water vapor holds heat, the researchers say that the Tongan eruption could temporarily raise temperatures a bit.

Most of the time, it takes sulfate aerosols from volcanoes about two to three years to fall out of the stratosphere. But the water from the Jan. 15 eruption might not be gone for 5–10 years.

Given how long it took and how much water was involved, the researchers said in their paper that Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai “may be the first volcanic eruption observed to impact climate not through surface cooling caused by volcanic sulfate aerosols, but rather through surface warming,”