- Human activities emit roughly 135 times as much climate-warming carbon dioxide as volcanoes each year.
- Volcanoes emit less than cars and trucks, and less, even, than cement production.
- Climate change skeptics have claimed the opposite.
Colossal, mind-bogglingly hot and capable of spewing billowing clouds of flight-grounding smoke and searing, molten lava, volcanoes are spectacular displays of the massive forces at work inside our planet. Yet they are dwarfed by humans in at least one respect: their carbon dioxide emissions.
Despite statements made by climate change deniers, volcanoes release a tiny fraction of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by human activities every year.
In fact, humans release roughly 135 times more carbon dioxide annually than volcanoes do, on average, according a new analysis. Put another way, humans emit in under three days the amount that volcanoes typically release in a year, according to the best estimates of volcanic emissions.
"The question of whether or not volcanoes emit more CO2 than human activity is one I get more than any question in my email from the general public.' said Terrence Gerlach, a retired volcanologist, formerly with the Cascades Volcano Observatory, part of the US Geological Survey in Vancouver, Wash. Even earth scientists who work in other areas often pose him the question, he said.
To lay out a clear answer, Gerlach compiled the available estimates of CO2 emissions from all global volcanic activity on land and undersea and compared them with estimates for human emissions. He published the compilation in Eos, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.
Researchers estimate the amounts of carbon dioxide released by terrestrial volcanic eruptions by methods including remote sensing or flying through clouds of erupting volcanic gas, and by measuring certain isotope concentrations near undersea volcanoes. Carbon dioxide is dissolved in magma at great depths and is released as the magma rises to the surface.
"A lot of climate skeptics claim that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans do," Gerlach said. "They never give any numbers, but the fact is you will never be able to find the volcanic gas scientist that will agree to that," he said.
One example of these skeptic's claims is the 2009 book, "Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science" by Ian Plimer of the University of Adelaide, who did not respond to Discovery News' requests for comment.