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The world has recently experienced record-breaking temperatures, leaving scientists to explore the causes behind this alarming trend. Surprisingly, an unexpected factor has emerged as a potential culprit: the rare Pacific volcano—an underwater volcanic eruption off the coast of Tonga in the South Pacific in January 2022.
Typically, volcanic eruptions tend to have a cooling effect on the planet by casting a sun-dimming haze into the atmosphere. However, the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai was different. It propelled an astonishing volume of water, equivalent to 60,000 Olympic swimming pools, into the stratosphere, high above the Earth’s surface.
Water vapor, a natural greenhouse gas, can trap heat as it circulates throughout the atmosphere. Conversely, major land-based eruptions, like the famous Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 or a rare Pacific volcano, temporarily block sunlight with ash and particles, causing a short-term cooling effect.
Peter Thorne, a professor of climate science at Maynooth University in Ireland, pointed out that “the majority of volcanoes will have a cooling effect.” However, the Tongan volcano appears to be an exception, introducing a significant and unprecedented variable into the equation of global climate dynamics.
A rare Pacific volcano eruption added to the unprecedented warmth from June to August. It witnessed the warmest temperatures worldwide, surpassing previous records by a surprisingly wide margin. Heatwaves swept across regions from Japan to the United States, raising concerns about the accelerating pace of global warming.
While human-induced greenhouse gas emissions remain the dominant contributor to global warming, scientists are beginning to recognize the potential influence of other factors. These include the effects of El Niño weather patterns warming the Pacific, restrictions on light-reflecting pollutants from shipping fuels, and, notably, volcanic activity. Many experts stress the need for further research into the impact of volcanic eruptions on global climate, especially when considering events like the “rare Pacific Volcano.” Understanding how such eruptions can briefly affect the long-term trend of global warming, driven primarily by fossil fuel combustion, is crucial for informed climate action.
The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit the rise in average temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to mitigate the most severe consequences of climate change. Temperatures have risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius, underscoring the urgency of addressing all contributing factors, including the rare Pacific volcano eruption.