An Explosive Idea

Are volcanoes the cure for global warming?

By now everyone has seen the devastating havoc wreaked by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland And I’m not just talking about the impacts on the careers of TV journalists trying to pronounce the Icelandic tongue-twister of a volcano.  The eruption cloud has shut down air travel in Europe and has led to massive speculation on the climate impacts of the spewing ash and sulfur dioxide.

Most scientists say the eruption is having minimal climate change impacts. (With an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide per day, the volcano would rank about 50th in a list of nations by average emissions-per- day.)  Others say that the beneficial impacts of ash and sulfate in the air will temper the impacts of climate change.

So volcanic eruptions may be just what the doctor ordered to adapt to the high CO2 levels from manmade impacts.  Some scientists that favor geoengineering have suggested creating sulfate aerosol clouds in the stratosphere or maybe even trillions of small mirrors in space as a sunshield.  Why go to all of that trouble when we can just trigger extensive volcanic eruptions across the planet? 

A geoengineered nuclear winter may allow us to emit even more CO2 while maintaining current air temperatures.  The Mount Pinatubo eruption in the early 1990s led to an average global temperature reduction of nearly one degree.  Imagine what a geoengineered series of volcanic eruptions could do for weather control.  Of course the high CO2 levels in the atmosphere will still lead to ocean acidification and the loss of mollusks and phytoplankton, but at least it won’t be too hot. 

After all, Earth has gone through massive volcanic eruptions before. At the end of the Permian period a mere 250 million or so years ago, cataclysms in Siberia and China changed the atmosphere a lot.  Nuclear winter and an enormous hole or two in the stratospheric ozone layer led to a few pesky side effects.  The Permian-Triassic extinction event was the greatest in Earth’s history, with nearly 96% of all marine species and over 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates wiped out. 

Now that outcome may be a little extreme, so maybe we shouldn’t trigger volcanic events of quite that magnitude. But we must pay a price to maintain our energy consumption habits and a cooler planet.

This scenario is more than a little absurd, but who is willing to bet me that some U.S. senator  won’t bring up geoengineering and volcanism in the debate over climate change legislation?

After all, each of us is really small compared to a giant volcano that can spew ash thousands of miles across Europe. So humans clearly can’t be causing climate change. It’s an absurd argument, but look for it on C-SPAN in the coming months.

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