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The Connection between Volcanoes and Climate Change

The increasing volcanic activities in the Pacific Ring of Fire have sparked speculations and concerns that a catastrophic disaster is coming. Based on the website Volcano Discovery, almost three dozen volcanoes throughout the Ring of Fire are currently erupting or showing unrest at this time. One of them is the Mayon Volcano in Albay. These volcanoes are exhibiting ash explosions, pyroclastic flows, and lava fountains, which are dangerous to the communities and animals around them.


Eruption of Mayon Volcano. Photo Courtesy: Letrato Photography


But these activities are normal, according to Yosuki Aoki, assistant professor of Physical Volcanology at the University of Tokyo. Aoki stressed that volcanoes typically go through active and inactive cycles.


Inextricably Intertwined
According to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Center for Science Education, volcanic activities have an impact on climate change and vice versa. As the climate continues to deteriorate mainly because of man-made activities, these two can create devastating long-term effects on our planet.


Volcanic eruptions are part of the Earth’s natural processes. These happen when lava, gas, and other hot materials are thrown out of a volcano, or through its vent.


Its first stage happens when rocks inside the Earth’s crust melt, thus, producing magma, which is lighter than rocks. As magma fills the chamber, pressure builds. This pressure becomes intense when the chamber is already filled with thick and sticky magma, leading to an explosive eruption.


Volcanoes also release toxic gases during eruption. While water vapor comprises the biggest portion of gases released by a volcano, other particles such as carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, and methane are also thrown into the atmosphere. These volcanic gases are harmful to humans, animals, and other living things. Aside from causing respiratory ailments, these may also inhibit plant growth.


Mayon Volcano Ash Explosion. Courtesy: Earl Recamunda / AP


On the other hand, a change in climate patterns, whether global or regional, is called climate change. It is largely attributed to the significant amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which are produced by human activities and our negligence to protect the environment.


Global Climate Map. Courtesy: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Global Warming
Among the effects of climate change on our planet are global warming and cooling, rising sea levels, and the melting of glaciers. Global warming, which is the rise of the average global temperature in the last five decades, is caused by greenhouse gases trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, which keeps heat from escaping.


A group of researchers from the University of Leeds in England studied the relationship of glaciers and volcanoes in Iceland. They concluded that there are fewer eruptions and lava volume when the climate is cooler, and the land has a thick glacial cover.


Iceland Volcanic Map. Courtesy: Google Images


Researchers also found that when there is a glacial retreat, the pressure between the glacial ice and surface decreases. Thus, it is much easier for magma to rise into the surface.


Another study led by British and American researchers and published in the journal, Nature, shows that massive amounts of carbon dioxide from volcanic eruptions triggered a global warming episode 66 million years ago. This event is called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Scientists described the period as the “most rapid and extreme natural global warming event” in the last 66 million years. Almost 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions were from volcanic eruptions during that time. Large quantities of carbon resulted in its concentration in the atmosphere. An average global temperature increase of 5 degrees Celsius was observed for about 150,000 years.



Global Climate Through the Years


Global Cooling
Volcanic eruptions also contribute to global cooling. Often called as “volcanic winter”, volcanic ash and sulfuric acid in the atmosphere reduce the global temperature. This is because particles block solar radiation.


In 1991, Mount Pinatubo unleashed massive eruption after an almost 600-year slumber. Ash and particles ejected into the atmosphere reached as high as 34 kilometers into the stratosphere. Thousands of civilians living within the 30-kilometer radius from the crater were evacuated days before and during the event.


1991 Eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Photo Courtesy: PBS


During the June 15 climactic eruption, Typhoon Yunya struck the island of Luzon which brought wet ashfall to the entire island, and also affected several Asian countries such as Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. About 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide from Pinatubo went into the stratosphere, reacting with water to create aerosol particles, thus, blocking solar radiation. The aerosols scattered across the globe, and decreased the global temperature by about 0.6 degrees Celsius in the next 15 months after the eruption.


Tephra fall from 1991 Mount Pinatubo Eruption


Natural vs Manmade
The interaction between volcanic eruptions and climate is a natural process since time immemorial. The Earth has endured many effects from this interaction.


However, the main contributors to the current climate crisis are man-made activities. These factors have already surpassed the effects of natural processes that triggered past global warming and cooling events.


The negative effects of human activities on the planet may aggravate the interaction between eruptions and climate. However, we can minimize the effects of this deadly interaction if we change our habits, and show concern and care for our environment.


By Panahon TV Intern Kent Ryan Masing