Monday, April 26, 2010

Mt. Eyjafjallajokull

Recently, I visited Mt. Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland to see this volcano firsthand and speak with scientists studying the eruption and its potential impact on our climate. Volcanoes are one of the sources of naturally occurring greenhouse gases and large eruptions in the past have impacted our climate.

During an eruption, volcanoes release a number of gases into the atmosphere. The most abundant gases typically released from volcanoes are water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Scientists have calculated that volcanoes emit between about 130-230 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

While it is unclear at this time how much total CO2 is expected to be released from the current Mt. Eyjafjallajokull eruption, the 1991 eruption at Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines was estimated to have released 42 million metric tons of CO2, roughly the same as the amount emitted by the state of Montana in 2005. The eruption at Mt. Pinatubo was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the 20th century, and Mt. Eyjafjallajokull is significantly smaller by comparison. Current estimates place CO2emissions from Mt. Eyjafjallajokull at 150,000 to 300,000 metric tons daily, but it is unclear how long these levels will be sustained.

But the effect of volcanoes on the Earth's climate goes beyond CO2. The sulfur dioxide emissions from volcanic eruptions are also thought to be responsible for the global cooling that has been observed for a few years after a major eruption. Emissions of SO2 from an active volcano can reach the stratosphere where they convert to tiny persistent sulfate particles. These sulfate particles reflect energy coming from the sun, which produces a widespread cooling effect by preventing the sun's rays from heating the Earth.

Mt. Eyjafjallajokull is a stark reminder of how powerful nature is and how little we can control it. This eruption grounded thousands of flights and stranded tens of thousands of travelers in Europe. Yet some people in the climate debate seem to think humans control everything. We need to set aside that hubris. Politicians who use science to push their agendas would be wise to learn from this event and understand that our current climate models have serious limitations. We would be better served in pursuing realistic solutions and not expending tremendous financial resources under the false assumption that we humans control everything.

“Volcano emitting tonnes of CO2 daily,” April 20, 2010

Video of Mt. Eyjafjallajokull erupting

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