Will the massive January 14, 2022 eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano affect weather patterns yet this year and next?
The ultimate answer to this question is obviously still to be determined, but the discussion below will elaborate on why the short answer is that weather patterns are not likely to be impacted.
Typically, explosive volcanic eruptions release many aerosols into the stratosphere where there’s no mixing of air. Those aerosols will then remain in the stratosphere for a long time while circling the Earth. Some of these aerosols, in particular sulfur dioxide, undergo chemical reactions that eventually reflect enough incoming solar radiation back to space that they can cause the planet to cool over the course of a few years. After the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991, around 20,000 kilotons of sulfur dioxide were released into the atmosphere, causing a noticeable reduction of the global temperature over the next 1-2 years.
The Hunga Tonga eruption in the South Pacific in January was an enormous eruption – the largest one observed globally since Mt. Pinatubo. It created atmospheric pressure waves that circled Earth several times and released a plume cloud that reached around 35-40 kilometers (km) in altitude above the Pacific. This is well into the stratosphere where planet-cooling gases are deposited and are very slow to disperse. It’s the highest that volcanic ash has ever been detected in the atmosphere, according to Oxford University research fellow Simon Proud. The center of the eruption plume – directly above the volcano – reached a satellite-estimated altitude of 55 km or about 180,000 feet. This estimation puts the top of this plume into the mesosphere, the third layer of the atmosphere from the surface. Typically, air stops rising at an altitude of around 60,000 feet but can rise a bit higher in the strongest thunderstorms because of very stable air that warms with height in the stratosphere. Volcanic material being pushed 120,000 feet above this level is a measure of how violent this eruption was. Extensive lightning was also discharged as a result.
We know it was a massive eruption capable of depositing globally-cooling gases into the atmosphere. However, this eruption had a measured release of about 100-400 kilotons (depending on various satellite estimates) of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. This is only approximately 1-2% of the amount of sulfur dioxide released by Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. Subsequently, at this time no significant or even measurable impacts to global temperatures over the next year or two are expected because of this eruption.
At this conjecture, based on the data discussed above, we do not expect future weather patterns to be affected by the Hunga Tonga eruption, but we will continue to monitor to help determine whether any abnormal positive temperature forecast biases develop in the next couple of years.
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