Several volcanoes around the world are being woken up on purpose. The mission? To use volcanic eruptions to protect the Earth from global warming. In what ways could you activate a volcano? How could you do this in the safest way possible? And would this save the planet or create more climate chaos?
So, how exactly are erupting volcanoes supposed to stop climate change? Well, that’s simple. Volcanoes would limit the amount of sunlight reaching Earth through a process called solar geoengineering. You’d purposely pump millions of tons of sulfur dioxide straight into the atmosphere.
This is the Pinatubo strategy. It’s named after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. This eruption cooled the planet by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F). And this cooling effect lasted for one year. That’s because sulfuric acid droplets mixed with moisture and formed aerosols in the stratosphere. And those aerosols reflected sunlight away from the Earth’s surface.
And while this wouldn’t have any effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it could help slow the melting of permafrost. Would this be a practical step to saving the planet? Or would you end up endangering billions of people?
If you figured out how to control and trigger not one but many volcanic eruptions worldwide, you could be sitting on a golden ticket to solving our global warming problems. Hopefully, this goes without saying, but however you’d make this happen, it shouldn’t be with a nuclear explosion. Yes, a nuke could trigger the eruption you’re looking for. But it would add a terrifying dimension of atomic fallout.
You wouldn’t be able to drill down into the magma chamber either. It would be like trying to bleed to death from a paper cut. You’d need to find a volcano that is ready to erupt. And it should be one that doesn’t erupt frequently, so there is pressure building up. You’d want a lot of pressure. Now, to speed up the process, you could mine some rocks off the top of the volcano.
That way, all that pressure could make the magma blow the weakened rock surface sky high. Or, if you’d prefer a quicker fix, you could place a bunch of explosives across the top and BOOM. The only problem would be timing. We still can’t accurately predict how long it takes between the trigger of an eruption and the actual eruption.
But let’s assume you did trigger the volcano, and your timing is just right. And now it’s time to send those hot volcanic gases up in the air. I hope you picked the right volcanoes for this mission.
You’d want eruptions that would occur closest to the stratosphere. This varies depending on latitude. And you’d want to consider other factors like air circulation patterns and the amount of sunlight reflected by the Earth’s surface.
And if you want the eruptions to have the same effect as Pinatubo, you’d need them to be big. Or bigger. This is because the impact of volcanic eruptions on our global temperature decreases the more the atmosphere is warming.
Scientists think this is because global warming affects the height of the stratosphere. The more severe the effects of global warming, the higher the volcanic plumes would need to climb.
Pinatubo scored a 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. We’d need an eruption of that or higher. Perhaps like the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia or the super-eruption of Yellowstone over a half a million years ago. Those scored 7 and 8 on the index.
But eruptions of these sizes anywhere near populated areas would have devastating effects. We’d have to evacuate people and resettle them elsewhere. Even with every precaution taken, many people could still die.
And even though you woke up a volcano to fight climate change, you could end up having to deal with some climate effects you didn’t intend. When Pinatubo erupted, it disrupted the monsoon season in Asia. Who knows what kind of unexpected disaster your eruption would cause.
For example, rainfall could increase or decrease dramatically. And this would disrupt the agricultural industry and result in food shortages around the globe. Then, if you did cool down the Earth significantly, the temperatures could jump back to where they were once the eruption stopped. And this could cause termination shock and devastate wildlife struggling to adapt to new conditions.
OK, but what if you managed to avoid all these adverse side effects and set off numerous remote active volcanoes that didn’t hurt anybody? Well, then you could change the course of the rising global temperatures on Earth.
One eruption similar to Pinatubo would lower the sea surface temperatures by 0.15 – 0.3 °C (0.27 – 0.54 ºF). And this effect could last anywhere between five and 20 years.
And you wouldn’t have to worry too much about all these eruptions adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Volcanic eruptions around the world are estimated to release about 0.26 gigatons per year. Meanwhile, global road transportation alone released 5.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide in the year 2015.
So your genius plan to cool the Earth would have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than you’d think. But there’s bound to be a better method to all this madness than triggering synchronized volcanic eruptions around the planet. Maybe you could lower global temperatures by refreezing the Arctic.
- “‘Next Pinatubo’ A Test Of Geoengineering”. Jonathan Amos. 2015. bbc.com.
- “A ‘Volcanic’ Heat Shield Could Protect Earth From Extreme Warming”. James Rainey. 2018. nbcnews.com.
- “Volcanoes Can Affect Climate | U.S. Geological Survey”. 2021. usgs.gov.
- “FAQ: What Do Volcanoes Have To Do With Climate Change?”. 2021. climate.nasa.gov.
- “On The Climatic Implications Of Volcanic Cooling”. Lindzen Richard S., and Constantine Giannitsis. 1998. Journal Of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 103 (D6): 5929-5941. doi:10.1029/98jd00125.