A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Eruption Corruption

Q: Did carbon dioxide emissions from the volcanic eruption in Iceland negate five years’ worth of effort to control CO2?

A: Not even close. Carbon dioxide emissions from the volcano were small relative to human activity, and partially offset by the shutdown of European air travel.


Well here is another good one. Probably more intended just to irritate. I did a quick search on your site but came up empty.

*FOOD FOR THOUGHT ….. this was sent to me by a friend,
thought I would pass it along.  *

*Are you sitting down?
*Okay, here’s the bombshell. The current volcanic
eruption going on in Iceland, since it first started
spewing volcanic ash a week ago, has, to this point,
NEGATED EVERY SINGLE EFFORT you have made in the past five years to control CO2 emissions on our planet.  Not
only that, this single act of God has added emissions to
the earth estimated to be 42 times more than can be
corrected by the extreme human regulations proposed for
annual reductions.[EET ]

I know, I know…. (have a group hug)…it’s very
disheartening to realize that all of the carbon emission
savings you have accomplished while suffering the
inconvenience and expense of driving Prius hybrids,
buying fabric grocery bags, sitting up til midnight to
finish your kid’s "The Green Revolution" science
project, throwing out all of your non-green cleaning
supplies, using only two squares of toilet paper,
putting a brick in your toilet tank reservoir, selling
your SUV and speedboat, going on vacation to a city park
instead of Yosemite, nearly getting hit every day on
your bicycle, replacing all of your $1 light bulbs with
$10 light bulbs …well, all of those things you have
done have all gone down the tubes in just the past week.
The volcanic ash emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere in
the past week has totally erased every single effort you
have made to reduce the evil beast, carbon.  And, those
hundreds of thousands of American jobs you helped move
to Asia with expensive emissions demands on
businesses… you know, the ones that are creating even
more emissions than when they were creating American
jobs, well that must seem really worthwhile now.
I’m so sorry. And I do wish that there was some kind of
a silver lining to this volcanic ash cloud but the fact
of the matter is that the brush fire season across the
western U.S.A. will start in about two months and those
fires will negate your efforts to reduce carbon
emissions in our world for the next two years.

So, grab a Coke, give the world a hug, and have a nice



This isn’t the first time this type of claim has come up — scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey addressed similar rumors during the 2007 eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii. It’s true that erupting volcanoes do emit some carbon dioxide, one of the “greenhouse gases” that contributes to global climate change. But according to USGS, human activities release at least a hundred times more CO2 every year than all the world’s volcanoes combined. Published estimates of the gas emissions from all volcanoes in the world range from 123 million to 378 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Humans haven’t produced that little since the 19th century.

Carbon dioxide isn’t a major output of volcanic eruptions. In the case of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which began erupting in March 2010 and entered an explosive phase in April 2010, one study found that less than 15 percent of the gas given off in the pre-explosive phase was CO2 – the majority was water vapor. For some other volcanoes, the proportion of CO2 is even lower.

Still, that accounted for 150,000 to 300,000 tons of CO2 per day at the height of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, according to wire reports. But the European Union’s air travel, which was shut down for days during the eruption, accounts for 3 percent of the EU’s total CO2 emissions, which according to the European Environment Agency was about 4,089 billion tons in 2008. That means air travel in Europe gives off about 340,000 tons of CO2 per day. The shutdown of air travel in much of Europe during the first week of the explosive eruption would have offset, if not greatly outpaced, the CO2 Eyjafjallajokull produced during that time.

Air travel suspension probably wouldn’t offset all the CO2 production during the eruption. Most air travel was suspended in northern Europe for a week in April and intermittently thereafter, but the volcano had already been producing steam before the explosive phase, and was still doing so as of June 15. But the Eyjafjallajokull volcano’s CO2 production is still nowhere near swamping human efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. The EEA’s statistics show that the EU’s CO2 emissions dropped by 88 million tons between 2007 and 2008. To equal that amount, Eyjafjallajokull would have to keep belching CO2 at maximum capacity for 293 days. Forget worldwide proposed CO2 reductions over five years — the volcano won’t even negate one year’s emissions drop in the EU alone. And a year’s worth of gases from all volcanoes worldwide could be negated by a 0.5 percent to 1 percent drop in annual world CO2 emissions.

The Eyjafyallajokull eruption was not unusually large or violent, Lynne Elkins, a volcanologist at Bryn Mawr, told us in an e-mail. It was disruptive because the ash it produced interfered with air travel, but that was due to its location relative to the jet stream. And for normal volcanoes, the gases they give off on a regular basis have a bigger effect on the atmosphere than the gases produced during eruptions. “Although an occasional catastrophic eruption can put a whole lot of gases, aerosols, and ash into the atmosphere for a little while, in most years with just normal numbers and durations of eruptions, the passive degassing between eruptions provides a much larger input to the atmosphere than any single eruption event,” Elkins said. “Eyjafjalljokull’s eruptions haven’t gone that high or had more than a local climate effect, because the volume of material is small.”

Volcanoes do give off a lot of water vapor, also a greenhouse gas — but again, Elkins said, they give off water vapor all the time, not only during eruptions, and this is taken into account in the climate models that are used to predict climate change and test the effects of new regulations. Volcanic production of sulfur dioxide does actually outpace human contribution, and can have a noticeable effect on the environment. But sulfur dioxide mostly contributes to global cooling. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines cooled the earth for three years, by as much as 1.6 degrees at the height of its effect, according to USGS. But USGS also notes that "[w]hile sulfur dioxide released in contemporary volcanic eruptions has occasionally caused detectable global cooling of the lower atmosphere, the carbon dioxide released in contemporary volcanic eruptions has never caused detectable global warming of the atmosphere" (emphasis in original). This eruption will be no exception.

— by Jess Henig


U.S. Geologic Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. "Which produces more CO2, volcanic or human activity?" 20 Feb 2007.

U.S. Geologic Survey. "Volcanic Gases and Their Effects." 11 Jun 2010.

Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "Historical Global CO2 Emissions." Accessed 23 Jun 2010.

Burton, Mike et al. "Gas composition and flux report." Nordic Volcanological Center. Accessed 23 Jun 2010.

United Press International. "Icelandic volcano no threat to climate." 21 Apr 2010.

BBC News. "EU tackles aircraft CO2 emissions." 20 Dec 2006.

European Environment Agency. "Annual European Union greenhouse gas inventory 1990 – 2008 and inventory report 2010." 2 Jun 2010.

International Energy Agency. "CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion 2009." 2009.

Interview with Dr. Lynne Elkins, volcanologist, Bryn Mawr College. 9 Jun 2010 and 23 Jun 2010.

U.S. Geologic Survey. "Volcanic Gases and Climate Change Overview." 11 Jun 2010.