RealClimate logo


The Volcano Gambit

Anyone reading pundits and politicians pontificating profusely about climate or environmental science will, at some point, have come across the “volcano gambit”. During the discussion they will make a claim that volcanoes (or even a single volcano) produce many times more pollutant emissions than human activities. Often the factor is extremely precise to help give an illusion of science-iness and, remarkably, almost any pollutant can be referenced. This “volcano gambit” is an infallible sign that indicates the author is clueless about climate science, but few are aware of its long and interesting history…

From Augustine to Mt. St. Helens

The ur-usage was a legitimate paper in Science in July 1980 by seismologist David Johnston writing about chlorine emissions in eruptions:

Earlier estimates of the chlorine emission from volcanoes, based upon evaluations of the pre-eruption magmatic chlorine content, are too low for some explosive volcanoes by a factor of 20 to 40 or more. Degassing of ash erupted during 1976 by Augustine Volcano in Alaska released 525 x 106 kg of chlorine (±40%), of which 82 x 106 to 175 x 106 kg may have been ejected into the stratosphere as hydrogen chloride [HCl]. This stratospheric contribution is equivalent to 17 to 36% of the 1975 world industrial production of chlorine in fluorocarbons.

In the main text, there was also this quote:

[The] eruption of the Bishop Tuff from Long Valley Caldera, California, 700,000 years ago generated 100 km3 of air-fall ash(19). If the magma degassed 0.25% chlorine (equivalent to Augustine Volcano), this eruption may have injected 289 x 109 kg of HCl into the stratosphere, equivalent to about 570 times the 1975 world industrial production of chlorine in fluorocarbons.

For context, a big issue at the time was to characterise the budget for chlorine in the stratosphere, given it’s importance in ozone depletion. While there is quite a lot of HCl emitted by volcanoes, that form of chlorine is soluble, and is swiftly rained out, unlike the much less reactive human-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which can stay in the atmosphere from many decades. Multiple studies subsequent to the Johnston paper confirmed that the volcanic contribution to stratospheric chlorine is actually very small, but this paper was a genuine attempt to constrain this term. To summarise, there are two cases mentioned, Augustine (in Alaska, 1976) and the Long Valley Caldera (California, 700,000 yrs ago), with estimated multiples of 0.17-0.36 and 570 of HCl injection into the stratosphere compared to the annual industrial source of Cl in CFCs. [Note – if anyone has an earlier usage, please let me know].

An important volcanic event in 1980 was of course the huge eruption of Mount St Helens in May of that year. Tragically, the author of the Science paper, David Johnston, an up-and-coming USGS volcanologist, was himself killed in the blast a couple of months before his paper appeared.

Later that year, in October, Ronald Reagan commented on the eruption, suggesting that “one little mountain out there [Mt. St. Helens], in these last several months, has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving or things of that kind.” However, while the volcano emitted roughly 2×106 metric tons SO2, annual emissions from cars were 30 x 106 tons (out of a total human emission of ~131×106 tons). Reagan was out by a factor of 150. This was just the beginning of the mangling.

More relevant for the growth of the volcano gambit, these results got more and more warped in subsequent retellings. For instance, in 1990, Dixy Lee Ray, the ex-marine biologist and former (Democratic) governor of Washington, wrote in her book: “The eruption of Mt. St. Augustine in 1976 injected 289 billion kilograms of hydrochloric acid directly into the stratosphere. That amount is 570 times the total world production of chlorine and fluorocarbon compounds in the year 1975…. So much is known.” She mixed up the huge eruption 700,000 years ago, with a much smaller one in 1976, but it would get worse.

The Johnston paper also became a staple of the folks engaged in rearguard defenses against the 1989 Montreal Protocol, in particular, the Maduro and Schauerhammer book “Holes in the Ozone Scare” quotes the paper accurately, but ignores subsequent work ruling out the HCl source for stratospheric chlorine. This was well discussed by Sherwood Rowland in a 1993 Science commentary which aptly enough was focused on the need for better scientific communication with the public.

… to Mt. Pinatubo

In June 1991, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, and unsurprisingly became the volcano of choice for the contrarians.

Rush Limbaugh discussed this at various points in 1992 and in his 1993 book. On Nightline he stated: “it is man-made products which are causing the ozone depletion, yet Mount Pinatubo has put 570 times the amount of chlorine into the atmosphere in one eruption than all of man-made chlorofluorocarbons in one year”. (Note the further confusion attributing the eruption 700,000 yrs to the one that just happened). In his book “The Way Things Ought To Be” (1993) Limbaugh stretched the facts still further: “Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed forth more than a thousand times the amount of ozone-depleting chemical in one eruption than all the fluorocarbons manufactured by wicked, diabolical, and insensitive corporations in history.” He claims he got this information from Dixy Lee Ray’s book, “the most footnoted, documented book I have ever read.” Which, as noted above was already garbled. (More discussion on Limbaugh’s errors here and here).

From Chlorine to Greenhouse Gases

The Dixy Lee Ray book turns out to be a major source for disinformation, though with little evidence anyone read it carefully or looked up the references. In 2004, the conservative commentator, Jude Wannski mis-remembered Dixy Lee Ray: “[the] book she wrote, Trashing the Planet … debunked a number of myths about the environment. In it she had the following line: “The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 dumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all that has been released since the industrial revolution. Volcanoes have been erupting for millions of years with the same result. If this really affected climate, don’t you think it would have happened by now?””. This swaps HCl for greenhouse gases, conflates Mt St. Helens with St Augustine in her text (which in any case should have been the Long Valley Caldera)…

As environmental concern moved to the impact of global warming on ice sheets, so disinformers moved the volcanoes accordingly. In 2006, Christopher Monckton (“the Potty Peer”) said “In a good year for eruptions, Erebus can put out as much CFCs as Man used to.”

A year later (2007), Martin Durkin in his execrable documentary claimed that “One volcanic eruption for example, puts more pollution into the atmosphere than ten years worth of human activity.” This, despite being totally unspecific (which pollutant does he think he is referring to?), is of course wrong in any case. Perhaps he was channeling Reagan?

As in 1992, a new eruption gave rise to a new eruption of the gambit. In 2009, the “Stop Global Cooling” crowd stated: “Sure, volcanoes like the one spouting off in Alaska right now spew much more CO2 than humans could ever think of”. Similarly, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in March of that year added: “Can one huge volcano spew more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the people? Yes”. Ummm… no.

And yet it goes on. Ian Plimer in another contrarian tome included some even more made up facts: “massive volcanic eruptions (e.g. Pinatubo) emit the equivalent of a years’ human CO2 emissions in a few days” (p472) and “Volcanoes produce more CO2 then the world’s cars and industries combined” (p413). On p217 he claims that while “Mt. Pinatubo . . . released 20 millions tonnes of sulphur dioxide” it also released “very large quantities of chlorofluorocarbons”, citing Brasseur and Granier (1992) who don’t say there were any CFCs in the eruption, and even on chlorine, actually say the opposite: “after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the input of chlorine to the stratosphere was probably small”.

From Pinatubo to Eyjafjallajökull

In 2013, it was the turn of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland to steal the limelight. Ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee said: “The volcano that erupted over in Northern Europe actually poured more CO2 into the air in that single act of nature than all of humans have in something like the past 100 years.“. Senator Lisa Murkowski in 2014 similarly mentioned a volcano she “had heard about” in Iceland. “The emissions that are being put in the air by that volcano are a thousand years’ worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles, all of the manufacturing in Europe,” she said. Huckabee was using the same point as recently as July 2015: “a volcano, in one blast, will contribute more [CO2] than 100 years of human activity“. A century or a millennium – who’s counting?

Again this is all patent nonsense – the amount of CO2 emitted by Eyjafjallajökull was in fact more than 20 times smaller than just European aviation emissions per day – and the claim was rightly debunked by FactCheck.org, Slate, and HuffPo at the time.

Summary

So let’s recap with a simple graphic charting the use and abuse of these claims, colour-coded by the degree of wrongness:


To summarise, a speculative paper (that was later contradicted) about HCl emitted in a volcano 700,000 years ago is the progenitor of statements related to SO2, CO2, greenhouse gases or just “pollutants” in general, and has been associated with Mt. Augustine, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo, Erebus and Eyjafjallajökull, with comparisons to all industrial emissions in a year, 100 years, or since the industrial revolution, all cars in a decade, or indeed a thousand years.

The volcano gambit is the universal comparison, untethered to any actual facts, and look for it to resurface again the next time a big volcano hits the news.

References

  1. D.A. JOHNSTON, "Volcanic Contribution of Chlorine to the Stratosphere: More Significant to Ozone Than Previously Estimated?", Science, vol. 209, pp. 491-493, 1980. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.209.4455.491
  2. F.S. Rowland, "President's Lecture: The Need for Scientific Communication with the Public", Science, vol. 260, pp. 1571-1576, 1993. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.260.5114.1571
  3. G. Brasseur, and C. Granier, "Mount Pinatubo Aerosols, Chlorofluorocarbons, and Ozone Depletion", Science, vol. 257, pp. 1239-1242, 1992. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.257.5074.1239

122 Responses to “The Volcano Gambit”

  1. 101
    Hank Roberts says:

    Related content:

    http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6284/444
    Continental arc volcanism as the principal driver of icehouse-greenhouse variability
    Science 22 Apr 2016:
    Vol. 352, Issue 6284, pp. 444-447
    DOI: 10.1126/science.aad5787

    and, aha, in PJC’s “Chapter 2” “ISC” refers to

    The ISC-GEM Global Instrumental Reference Earthquake Catalogue (1900-2009)
    International Seismological Centre (ISC),

    Is that the source for the claim a sudden increase in vulcanism caused the recent warming?

    Someone with better anti-malware might want to check that last one carefully, it gets

    The owner of beta.globalquakemodel.org has configured their website improperly. To protect your information from being stolen, Firefox has not connected to this website.

    when I try the link provided.

  2. 102

    Anent submarine volcanoes, here’s an in situ study:

    http://www.nature.com/articles/srep25686#f1

    Sites like these provide an excellent opportunity to study the carbonate system, the volcanic contribution to the global volcanic carbon flux, and the potential environmental impact of these emissions on the surrounding ocean. The flux of CO2 from El Hierro submarine volcano (6.0 105 ±  1.1 105 kg d−1)) is comparable to that at other submarine volcanoes34 but relatively small compared to both the global volcanic flux of CO235 (~0.1%) and the anthropogenic flux36 (~0.002%). Although CO2 flux data from hydrothermally and volcanically active submarine volcanoes in the ocean are scarce, it is estimated that mid-ocean ridge, arcs and plumes contribute35 with 2.7 108 kg d−1, 3.0 108 kg d−1 and 3.6 108 kg d−1, respectively. Each of them provides 0.1 ±  0.02 Gt of CO2 yr−1 to the total CO2 added to the ocean. More importantly, however, the emission of CO2 from submarine volcanoes generates local ocean acidification that could affect biological communities, with especially important consequences for organisms that use calcium carbonate in their structures.

    And this comment, via the Guardian:

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/apr/21/iceland-volcano-climate-sceptics

    …a point picked up by my colleague James Randerson when he interviewed Plimer last December. In Heaven and Earth, Plimer says: “Volcanoes produce more CO2 than the world’s cars and industries combined.” Randerson challenged Plimer on this point, stating that the US Geological Survey (USGS) states: “Human activities release more than 130 times the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanoes.”

    Plimer responded by saying that this does not account for undersea eruptions. However, when Randerson checked this point with USGS volcanologist Dr Terrence Gerlach, he received this reply:

    I can confirm to you that the “130 times” figure on the USGS website is an estimate that includes all volcanoes – submarine as well as subaerial … Geoscientists have two methods for estimating the CO2 output of the mid-oceanic ridges. There were estimates for the CO2 output of the mid-oceanic ridges before there were estimates for the global output of subaerial volcanoes.

  3. 103
    P J Carson says:

    1. Thanks Hank for taking the time to look at my site. I hope you could follow it. I’d appreciate your comments if it wasn’t understandable. Being a scientist and the author, my point of view, may be rather different from others’.

    2. The correct ISC site is now
    http://www.isc.ac.uk/iscgem/overview.php
    [It could have been reached by following the extra info I had in reference 6.
    As I stated, their Figure 2 is my figure 16.
    As stated in my reference 6, the ISC is the International Seismological Centre, based in the UK is the global repository of seismic info.]

    2. It is not a “sudden change in vulcanism”. Fig 16 follows global temperatures since 1900, the beginning of their data, rather well, doesn’t it?

    But those data are only part of my argument I’ve presented.

    3. Thanks for your Science reference.

    4. CO2 levels are certainly rising rapidly – unprecedented for thousands (millions?) of years – almost certainly due to Man, as I wrote previously (#98).

    5. As usual, people react stridently to a different opinion.

  4. 104
    P J Carson says:

    1. Thanks Hank for taking the time to look at my site. I hope you could follow it. I’d appreciate your comments if it wasn’t understandable. Being a scientist and the author, my point of view, may be rather different from others’.

    2. The corrected ISC site is now
    http://www.isc.ac.uk/iscgem/overview.php
    [It could have been reached by following the extra info I had in reference 6.
    As I stated, their Figure 2 is my figure 16.
    As stated in my reference 6, the ISC is the International Seismological Centre, based in the UK is the global repository of seismic info.]

    2. It is not a “sudden change in vulcanism”. Fig 16 follows global temperatures since 1900, the beginning of their data, rather well, doesn’t it?

    But those data are only part of my argument I’ve presented.

    3. Thanks for your Science reference.

    4. CO2 levels are certainly rising rapidly – unprecedented for thousands (millions?) of years – almost certainly due to Man, as I wrote previously (#98).

  5. 105
    P J Carson says:

    #102 Kevin McKinney.
    All your comments have already been addressed in my #98, and more extensively at my site.

    By the way, of Earth’s current 400 ppm CO2, 280 ppm has been produced naturally, presumably from volcanoes, and Man has produced 120 ppm – and rising.
    However, it’s irrelevant what level of CO2 is in the atmosphere, it’s the atmosphere’s density that counts. All gases are greenhouse gases – they all absorb heat. It has been forgotten all gases can also absorb heat energy by conduction and/or convection.

    (I’m not Ian Plimer! I don’t recycle others’ opinions. I draw my scientific conclusions from respected data. Do show errors if you can.)

  6. 106
    Hank Roberts says:

    2. It is not a “sudden change in vulcanism”…. since 1900, the beginning of their data

    Detecting a trend in vulcanism — which could be done from ashfall — would take how many years, given the variability year over year for volcanic activity?

    There’s no previous run-up in CO2 like that of the past century, and no source other than fossil carbon I’m aware of to match it.

    We’d notice another Deccan Traps scale event starting up, and even that took a very long time to push CO2 much higher than it had been.

  7. 107

    #105–No, your comment at #98 doesn’t address the citations I made. And no, the fact that all gases have a temperature does not make them all ‘greenhouse gases.’

    PJ, you appear to be one of the purest examples of DK syndrome I’ve seen in a while.

    Goodbye.

  8. 108
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS: “Observation bias aside, global volcanism has remained steady throughout recorded history. You have to view the planet from a geologic perspective, spanning millions and billions of years, to glimpse any major changes ….”
    http://www.seeker.com/are-volcanic-eruptions-increasing-1765097614.html#news.discovery.com

    You can look this stuff up.

    And no, Earth doesn’t swell and shrink to make the cracks along the edges of the continents.

  9. 109
    P J Carson says:

    #106 Hank Roberts.
    As there’s no ashfall from 80% to 90% of volcanic activity, ie submarine, one needs to use the proxy of seismic activity data – which have the added bonus of being available almost immediately. The ISC is the custodian of such data.

  10. 110
    P J Carson says:

    #107 Kevin McKinney.
    It’s apparent from your ad hominem language that you are unable or unwilling to contribute intelligently.

  11. 111

    #127, PJ–All right, one additional response.

    Apparently you don’t understand what an ad hominem is, either. For the record, that’s when someone’s argument is dismissed on the basis of some personal characteristic.

    By contrast, my ‘personal’ observation about you was based on your apparent inability to grasp the content of citations–even ones you yourself have endorsed–coupled with your comic assurance that you’ve somehow overturned the work of thousands, carried out over several decades.

    You might not like the image in the mirror I am holding up for you, but believe it or not, you’d be wise to take a look at it.

  12. 112
    Hank Roberts says:

    PJC — you haven’t shown that the proxy data — seismic and ashfall — supports any trend in vulcanism or earthquakes. There’s a lot published that says the increase in population and instrument coverage accounts for the increased detection above the threshold people notice and that it’s an observer effect. I’m afraid you’ve been fooled or fooled yourself on this. Seriously, doing science means reporting all the information both favoring and undermining your thesis, then summing up. You’ve got one big idea, and it appears to be wrong.

  13. 113
    sidd says:

    Over on the feedback thread i suggested a “Not even wrong” tag for for particularly horrible articles. Et voila:

    “However, it’s irrelevant what level of CO2 is in the atmosphere, it’s the atmosphere’s density that counts. All gases are greenhouse gases – they all absorb heat. It has been forgotten all gases can also absorb heat energy by conduction and/or convection.”

    The first sentence, to put it kindly, is in egregious error. The second attempts to distort a well understood definition, and the third (since my kindness has its limits) is a lie.

    For those who would prefer saner explanation, I recommend our host, Prof. Pierrehumbert’s excellent book on climate.

    sidd

  14. 114
    Mal Adapted says:

    P J Carson:

    #107 Kevin McKinney.
    It’s apparent from your ad hominem language that you are unable or unwilling to contribute intelligently.

    If Kevin had dismissed your scientific arguments solely because you’re the one making them, that would be an argumentum ad hominem on his part. However, your arguments have long since been evaluated on their merits, and dismissed because they are incorrect. It’s reasonable to speculate as to why you persist in making them when a genuine skeptic would acknowledge he was mistaken. Kevin is merely pointing out that your failure to recognize your own incompetence is a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  15. 115
    P J Carson says:

    #111 Kevin McKinney.
    Your #107 comment “PJ, you appear to be one of the purest examples of DK syndrome I’ve seen in a while.” qualifies as ad hominem.

  16. 116
    P J Carson says:

    #108 Hank Roberts. The ISC data from 1900 says otherwise; they seem to be the experts. They probably even know about the observer effect!
    That’s the proxy data which I’ve already referred to – you even stated #101
    “Is that the source for the claim a sudden increase in vulcanism caused the recent warming?” [BTW it’s volcanism.]

  17. 117
    P J Carson says:

    #108 Hank Roberts. Can you supply any evidence for your
    “And no, Earth doesn’t swell and shrink to make the cracks along the edges of the continents.”
    [Actually the cracks are on the edges of the tectonic boundaries, not the continents – not the same thing. I hope you realise that you are aware of that error, otherwise you’ve got a bit of reading to do.]
    Oh! If you actually read my site you will see my “one big idea” matches measurements accurately.

  18. 118
    Marco says:

    P J Carson @98:
    ““..eruptions of submarine volcanoes does not emit nearly as much CO2 as subaerial volcanoes?”
    No, I didn’t realise that. Perhaps you can reference that.”

    I am a bit surprised you make such large claims about submarine volcanoes, but didn’t know this at all. I am not going to do your homework. There are loads of scientific studies that show CO2 emissions from submarine volcanoes being at best at the lower end of CO2 emissions from subaerial volcanoes. There is different chemistry at work.

  19. 119
    Hank Roberts says:

    > data from 1900
    mhmmm.

  20. 120
    Thomas says:

    117 P J Carson says: Even my high school geography taught me that continents sat upon (floated on) the tectonic plates. That there’s a meeting point (crack? separation?) between them as the tectonic plate is forced below the continents which can cause a fair bit of earthquake tensions to go pop now and then. Quite a different thing to tectonic boundaries and explained in simple english not scientific semantics. But whatever, all irrelevant to the science of agw/cc and the effects upon our shared atmosphere and oceans.

    imo, pointing out classic examples or questioning the possibility/likelihood of DK syndrome at play do not qualify as ad hominem. Calling someone an abject idiot, and therefore you are wrong, would. There is a difference.

    A fallacious ad hominem argument is one that attempts to substitute evidence against the person for evidence against the position. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

    Presenting compelling evidence against an argument/theory and then tossing in that the other is a ‘shit head’ isn’t fallacious ad hominem. It’s a logical argument with a personal insult tossed in for free, and which may be totally unrelated to the basic argument posited in the first place. :-)

  21. 121
    Hank Roberts says:

    > The ISC data from 1900 says otherwise

    No, it doesn’t. There’s nothing on that site about identifying a trend.
    You’re not just looking at the colored bars in the pictures, are you?

    > Can you supply any evidence for your “And no, Earth doesn’t swell and shrink …”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expanding_Earth
    http://marilynrucker.com/track/360677/prove-me-wrong

  22. 122
    P J Carson says:

    #121 Hank Roberts.
    1. Your quote “No, it doesn’t. There’s nothing on that site about identifying a trend.
    You’re not just looking at the colored bars in the pictures, are you?”

    YES, of course – because their conclusions are in graphical form. I can read graphs.
    The M>5.5 particularly, do match global warming since 1900 very well, don’t they? A lot better than CO2, even over the shorter period since 1950. “mhmmm”.
    (You can read why M>7.5 won’t match.)

    2. You have answered the wrong question, ie is Earth expanding?
    As I wrote in Chapter Two, my postulate requires that Earth expands, by about 400m diameter over 10,000 years, then shrinks by the same 400m over about 100,000 years. Your first reference does not preclude such small changes. (I’ve no idea what your 2nd reference is about; perhaps it’s your whimsy in action.) There’s no overall size change, although it may do over billions rather than millions of years.

    3. It’s a pity, but not unexpected, that the other critics here, haven’t bothered to read my site – but still criticise! (A couple have opened it, but closed it quickly. Perhaps they saw something scientific!