A Lasting Impression
Volcanic eruptions rarely inject much water into the stratosphere. In the 18 years that NASA has been taking measurements, only two other eruptions – the 2008 Kasatochi event in Alaska and the 2015 Calbuco eruption in Chile – sent appreciable amounts of water vapor to such high altitudes. But those were mere blips compared to the Tonga event, and the water vapor from both previous eruptions dissipated quickly. The excess water vapor injected by the Tonga volcano, on the other hand, could remain in the stratosphere for several years.
This extra water vapor could influence atmospheric chemistry, boosting certain chemical reactions that could temporarily worsen depletion of the ozone layer. It could also influence surface temperatures. Massive volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa and Mount Pinatubo typically cool Earth’s surface by ejecting gases, dust, and ash that reflect sunlight back into space. In contrast, the Tonga volcano didn’t inject large amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere, and the huge amounts of water vapor from the eruption may have a small, temporary warming effect, since water vapor traps heat. The effect would dissipate when the extra water vapor cycles out of the stratosphere and would not be enough to noticeably exacerbate climate change effects.
The sheer amount of water injected into the stratosphere was likely only possible because the underwater volcano’s caldera – a basin-shaped depression usually formed after magma erupts or drains from a shallow chamber beneath the volcano – was at just the right depth in the ocean: about 490 feet (150 meters) down. Any shallower, and there wouldn’t have been enough seawater superheated by the erupting magma to account for the stratospheric water vapor values Millán and his colleagues saw. Any deeper, and the immense pressures in the ocean’s depths could have muted the eruption.