Global Warming Versus the Volcano: Could Eruptions Slow Climate Change?

global warming volcano photo

Photo via eHow

Here's an interesting question: could volcanoes fight global warming? Volcanic eruptions have indisputably been responsible for global cooling in the past, after all. Large scale volcanic events like the one in El Chicón, Mexico back in 1982, and the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 caused global temperatures to drop--so it follows that volcanoes could feasibly help take on climate change. Right?According to the NY Times, the reasoning for the seemingly preposterous scenario goes like this: when volcanoes erupt, they emit sulfur gas dioxides that form particulates, which are injected high up into the atmosphere. These particulates then become a sort of shield that reflects solar radiation back into space. And thus, less heat in the greenhouse. After the Pinatubo eruption, the Times notes, global temperatures dropped an average of 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

So all we've got to do is get some big volcanoes to get on eruptin', and there--pesky ol' climate change problem solved. Well, not quite.

See, the particulates that get launched into the atmosphere, sulfate aerosol, have a pretty short lifespan--they only last one or two years, and the Earth's atmosphere recovers. Which is why the planet hasn't gotten increasingly colder and colder after every major volcanic eruption in history.

However, the Times reports that even though volcanoes also emit carbon when they erupt, the cooling effect is worth the trade off: "the cooling effects of sulfate particulates outweigh any potential warming effects of carbon dioxide released in the explosion." Which may be why president Obama has expressed interest in an experimental method of fighting global warming--a geoengineering project that uses this exact concept as its basis.

The idea remains a hugely theoretical, last-ditch way to respond to the threat of climate change--so how about we try cutting human generated greenhouse gas emissions first, get more renewable energy into the mix, and work on adjusting human behavior first. Failing that, then we can get a bunch of huge volcanoes to erupt simultaneously every couple years to save the climate.

More on Volcanoes and Climate Change:
More Global Warming-Induced Ice Melting Could Yield "Explosive" Results
7 Geoengineering Solutions That Promise To Save Humans from Climate Change
Mexican Volcanic Glaciers Disappearing Due to Climate Change

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