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Earth Versus the Volcano

April 21, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds blog Brit Trogen

 

You’d have to be living under a very large rock not to have heard of the flight-disrupting volcano that cost airlines nearly two billion dollars over the past week. And you’d have to have some sort of linguistic superpower to be able to pronounce its name: Eyjafjallajökull.

 

But while the pictures of stranded travelers and jokes about Iceland continue to circulate, the science behind the eruption, and what it could mean for our future, often remains in question. How can something as innocuous sounding as ash cause so much inconvenience?

 

According to the USGS website, volcanic ash consists of "tiny jagged pieces of rock and glass.” Mix this with jet engines, and the heat will melt the tiny pieces into a more uniform glass coating that can slow down the engines, or even stop them completely. So it's no surprise that most pilots opt to wait it out until the air has, quite literally, cleared.

But a common misconception is that this ash is going to end up being a major pollutant, contributing to global CO2 levels. In fact, human activity releases 130 times more CO2 every year than all the volcanoes on earth. The most abundant gas released from volcanic systems is actually water vapor, although sulfur dioxide from eruptions can sometimes lead to acid rain in local areas.

A more significant issue is, of course, plain old climate change. In short, Iceland’s ice caps are melting, and for a nation filled with ice-capped volcanoes, this can have a pretty significant effect on the rate of volcanic eruptions. Vulcanologists (who study volcanoes, not vulcans, FYI) are now reporting that thawing ice can change geological pressures, and have an effect on magma production, leading to more frequent eruptions.

This particular eruption probably wasn’t caused by climate change. But the increase in eruptions predicted from Iceland, Antarctica, Alaska and South America in coming decades will be. So if you thought this was bad, brace yourself for what the future may hold.

 

And make sure all your flight plans in the next century are refundable.

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