The Science of Sustainability

Which Are Gassier, Volcanoes or Humans?

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Carbon dioxide streams into a pond near the Sulphur Bank mine at Clear Lake. Volcanic gases are a very small factor in the atmospheric system that controls world climate. Photo by Andrew Alden

Here in the Bay Area, it's easy to find volcanic influences: Just visit one of our many hot springs, or Clear Lake, where I took this photo. These gassy springs that are bubbling with carbon dioxide are associated with young magma underneath the northern Coast Range. Many people believe that volcanic emissions of CO2 are a much greater influence on world climate than CO2 from human activities. Is that right?

The answer is no. It's a persistent delusion, similar to the idea that U.S. foreign aid is responsible for the national debt. Volcanoes erupt because of water vapor dissolved in lava. Volcanoes do release CO2, sometimes a great deal of it, but humans have been outdoing nature for a long time. Geoscientists have made many estimates of global volcanic CO2 production because it's one of those important numbers in the long-term, geologic carbon cycle. Plate tectonics carries buried carbon down into the deep Earth, and volcanoes burp it back up again.

At the global scale, the natural carbon cycle is slow and gentle, although the numbers may seem large: Volcanoes on land and under the sea release somewhere between 150 and 260 million tons of CO2 per year. However, human emissions of this greenhouse gas are around 35 billion-with-a-B tons a year when you add up burning oil and gas, manufacturing cement, running coal-fired power plants, and changes in land use like digging up soil and cutting down forests. We are a preposterously greater emitter of CO2 — two orders of magnitude greater. And while volcanoes are pretty steady, humans are getting worse and worse.

Volcanologist Terry Gerlach, of the U.S. Geological Survey, has been publicizing this inconvenient truth. In a 2011 article in Eos, aimed at scientists, he puts the numbers in a geological context. If volcanoes had to match the human output, he says, it would require one or more Yellowstone-size supereruptions every year. Put another way, there would have to be ten Mount St. Helens eruptions every single day. (By the law of averages the U.S. would get one of these about once a week.) I say, lie back in your local hot spring and rejoice that CO2 emissions are a problem that human ingenuity and action can address.

Learn more about the basics of volcanic gases at Volcano World.

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Category: Blog, Climate, Geology

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Mikecasey

    Why don't scientists quit, instead of perpetuating the pollution?