Has been shattered as the myths over Climate sceptics’ favourite theory that volcanoes produce more CO2 than human activity has exploded in their faces with Eyjafjallajokull eruption read On..
When Michael Lort stepped on to his allotment near the village of Bedfont, Twickenham and heard the roar of a plane from Heathrow. It was the first one he’d heard in six days, but already the peace and quiet seemed like a distant memory. “Oh, it was lovely,” said the retired factory worker, 61, as he smiled wistfully in the bright sunshine.
“You get used to them flying over all the time,” he added. “At first there was an eerie silence when they stopped. But it was really peaceful.”
William Downes, 79, who was taking a break from digging the earth at his Hatton Road plot, said he and his sister, Ellen Boulton, enjoyed their break from the planes and from the noise of kids from a nearby school, who were off for Easter.
“There’s a few screamers that are louder than the planes,” said Boulton, 80, as she sat in her hut with a cup of tea.
“It’s not too bad at the moment,” she said. “When they are coming in, it’s OK, but when they are going out, the engines really rev up and it’s noisy, as they’re so close. When Concordes used to come over, you could light your fag on the exhaust.”
Boulton said she didn’t mind the noise, because “a lot of people at these allotments work at the airport and it’s their livelihood”.
Kelly McDonald, 24, of Bedfont, agreed about the quiet atmosphere: “It has been nice, especially when the weather is like this, to have some peace and quiet. I sometimes get interference on the telly from the planes and that hasn’t happened. If you’re sitting here with a group of people, you have to stop your conversation, or shout, because the planes are flying in so low.”
She would like to enjoy the peace a little longer, but it had its price, she said. “It was nice, but now it’s back to reality. When you think of all those people stranded, it’s not fair on them.”
In the beer garden of the Green Man pub in Hatton, about five miles from Bedfont, it is impossible to ignore the resumption of flights. Planes roar every few minutes 100 metres over the heads of a handful of customers eating lunch or nursing pints, stopping conversations in their tracks.
“A lot of people come here to see planes” said Gosia, 29, the pub’s chef. “Oh look, British Airways” she said, pausing, as the roar of the aircraft receded. “I don’t mind it, I find it quite exciting. I live here and sleep above the pub, so I’ve got earplugs. You get used to it.”
A man who works for an airfreight company, and didn’t want to give his name said: “It’s a wonderful noise!”
Gesturing to the warehouses across the road, he said: “I haven’t had a job since Thursday and lots of air freight companies round here will have lost a lot of money. It’s a welcome noise for them.”
Along with the ash and lava, there have been many interesting asides tossed into the air for our consideration by the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. We have noticed just how reliant our globalised systems are on air travel. We have been reminded of nature’s brute force and primordial beauty. And we have been intrigued by what a wonderfully complex language Icelandic appears to be – to Anglo-Saxon ears, at least.
But one opportunity the volcano has gifted us in particular is the chance to put to bed once and for all that barrel-aged climate sceptic canard which maintains that volcanoes emit far more carbon dioxide than anthropogenic sources. It’s always been a favourite, but has been pushed even further up the charts of popularity in recent months by the repeated claims of Ian Plimer, the Australian mining geologist who wrote the climate sceptic bible Heaven and Earth last year.
Here, for example, is what Plimer wrote on Australia’s ABC Network website last August:
The atmosphere contains only 0.001 per cent of all carbon at the surface of the Earth and far greater quantities are present in the lower crust and mantle of the Earth. Human additions of CO2 to the atmosphere must be taken into perspective. Over the past 250 years, humans have added just one part of CO2 in 10,000 to the atmosphere. One volcanic cough can do this in a day.
John Cook of the increasingly popular Skeptical Science website currently lists the “volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans” viewpoint as number 54 on his ever-growing list – 107, to date – of debunked sceptic arguments.
It was also 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.
Despite having seemingly lanced this festering boil for good, the focus on Eyjafjallajokull over the past week has allowed this question to bubble back up to the forefront of people’s minds. It was enough to trigger the Paris-based AFP news agency to seek some answers:
Iceland‘s Eyjafjoell volcano is emitting between 150,000 and 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per day, a figure placing it in the same emissions league as a small-to-medium European economy, experts said on Monday.
Assuming the composition of gas to be the same as in an earlier eruption on an adjacent volcano, “the CO2 flux of Eyjafjoell would be 150,000 tonnes per day,” Colin Macpherson, an Earth scientist at Britain’s University of Durham, said in an email.
Patrick Allard of the Paris Institute for Global Physics (IPGP) gave what he described as a “top-range” estimate of 300,000 tonnes per day.
Both insisted that these were only approximate estimates.
Extrapolated over a year, the emissions would place the volcano 47th to 75th in the world table of emitters on a country-by-country basis, according to a database at the World Resources Institute (WRI), which tracks environment and sustainable development.
A 47th ranking would place it above Austria, Belarus, Portugal, Ireland, Finland, Bulgaria, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, according to this list, which relates to 2005.
Experts stressed that the volcano contributed just a tiny amount – less than a third of one percentage point – of global emissions of greenhouse gases.
So, please, can we now put this hoary old chestnut to bed?
One extra volcano-related aside: with European carbon market prices fluctuating around the €14 per tonne mark at present, this would mean that Eyjafjallajokull would theoretically be liable to a maximum daily bill of €4.2m if it were a fully fledged, carbon-trading nation or corporation. But who would dare get close enough to present it with an invoice?