Stop the volcanoes before they destroy us all

Do you smell something funny?

A reader chimes in with a question regarding the CO2 output of volcanoes. Normally we discourage our readers from asking questions, but we will indulge you just this once, because the answer was (to us) a little surprising.

Turns out volcanoes release quite a bit of CO2, although the numbers are small in comparison the amount created each year by human activities. One conservative estimate puts the amount of CO2 released every year by volcanoes at about 150-200 million tons (which you could offset with about 10 million Utility TerraPasses — anyone? Anyone?). This is a big number, but the amount created by humans every year is about 150 times bigger.

Another online source says that volcanoes produce about 3% of global CO2 emissions. That number, though significantly higher, is still small in comparison to man-made emissions.

Other fun volcano emissions facts:

  • Vulcanologists measure volcano emissions by taping sensors to the front of a helicopter and flying it into active craters. That is so freaking cool.
  • Despite the large amount of greenhouse gases coming out of volcanoes, volcanic activity is thought, on balance, to cause global cooling (cf. dinosaurs, extinction of).
  • CO2 emissions from volcanoes can reach concentrations high enough to be deadly. Because CO2 is heavier than oxygen, it has a tendency to settle in depressions. Although the gas itself isn’t toxic, it can cause asphyxiation at high enough concentrations. Pliny the Elder supposedly succumbed to CO2 asphyxiation after lying on the ground near Pompeii.
  • You think we were making up that bit about Pliny the Elder? There are areas near popular California ski resorts where you are discouraged from digging or lying face-down on the ground. You were warned.

Author Bio


Comments Disabled

  1. Anonymous - March 26, 2006

    Volcanoes are an important part of the earth’s natural cylce of regulating CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s helpful to remember that the carbon that is in the atmosphere is really the carbon that is going back and forth between the atmosphere, the land, and the ocean all the time. And that it is carbon that goes to or comes from rock (or under rock) that really changes concentrations over time.

    The earth’s natural regulation of CO2 goes like this. CO2 goes to rock by a chemical reaction with water that forms calcium carbonate, better known as limestone, marble and chalk. Yup, chalk. CO2 gets out of rock into the air by our friend the volcano, which “burps” it up. Since the reaction that forms calcium carbonate speeds up when it’s warmer, (that is, takes CO2 out of the atmosphere faster when it starts getting hotter) this acts as the earth’s “thermostat.” Pretty neat, huh?

    This is an oversimplified view, but there are two points to be made…

    1) Volcanoes are cool.

    2) Fossil fuel emmissions are overwhelming this natural system.

    As you correctly point out, our fossil fuel emissions are easily 100 greater than all the volcanoes in the world. That is, volcanoes contribution to global warming is now a moot point.

  2. Lisa - March 29, 2006

    “Normally we discourge our readers from asking questions, but we will indulge you just this once …”

    First of all, use a spell check before you publish something!!! Secondly, you DISCOURAGE readers from asking questions?!? This is precisely why I haven’t bought into your company. I think TerraPass is a great idea, but after perusing your site I was left with lots of questions as to how you’re actually spending the money you make. Seems to me you’re just using people’s guilt about burning gas to make $$. If you’re doing such great things why don’t you make your Annual Report public?

    Please remove me from your mailing list.


    PS: Regarding the other nugget of insight in your blog about the proper use of grammar: it sounds to me like you’ve gone to much trouble to convince yourself you can malign the English language with no dire consequences. Another reason I won’t support your company.

  3. tom - March 29, 2006

    Hey Lisa:

    1) Spelling corrected. Thanks for the catch.

    2) Hmm. This was a joke. Not only do we encourage readers to ask questions, but we go to great lengths to answer those questions. For example, in this post we spent a good deal of time researching the emissions characteristics of volcanoes, for no particular reason other than that one of our readers was interested.

    Sorry the joke wasn’t funny. Some work and some don’t. Please don’t take the jokes as an indication that we don’t take carbon emissions reduction seriously — we do. But we also feel that using occasional humor on this blog and elsewhere helps to engage our audience. Education is a big part of our mission, and corny humor sometimes helps the medicine go down.

    For what it’s worth, we really do answer every single email question (20-30/week) and post blogs about the most frequently answered ones.

    We also usually pick up the phone on the first ring. Call me toll-free at (877) 879-8026 if you want to talk. (Although sometimes we’re in meetings, so we have to get back to you.)

    Point being, if you have questions about us, we are more than happy to answer them.

    We’re also leading the way on the transparency of our operations. You’re curious where your money goes? From the very beginning, we’ve posted a complete transaction history on our web site that allows you to see every penny we’ve spent on carbon emissions reductions.

    We are also working on our first annual report and will make it public (we’ve only been in business for a year, which is why we don’t have any past annual reports). More importantly, we are working on the project verification and company audit from the Center for Resource Solutions, our 3rd-party auditor. As far as we know, we’re the only company in this industry that uses an independent 3rd-party auditor.

    Hopefully this answers some of the questions you have. Feel free to send us others. We’re planning a series of blog posts that address these issues, because we’re sure there are others who have similar concerns.

    Finally, if you don’t wish to subscribe to the TerraBlog, just click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email. Thanks.

  4. Honda Generators - April 1, 2006

    We can’t exactly blow up volcanoes to fix pollution, and we can’t exactly harness the power of the tides without altering them. We can’t pull power from wind without changing how hard it is blowing. You simply can’t just create energy.

  5. Peary - January 31, 2007

    Quick question on fossil fuels not being part of the “natural CO2 cycle”. Where exactly did the CO2 released when fossil fuels are burned come from in the first place?

  6. Adam Stein - January 31, 2007

    It came from organic matter, such as plants. Fossil fuels are a natural phenomenon, but they are not part of the natural CO2 cycle, which involves the capture of CO2 via photosynthesis and release via decay.

  7. M.J. aka HANK - May 25, 2007

    Volcanoes and man made pollution as well as nature with its many fires universally contribute to the release of CO2 which has now become the topic of the day. For, with it the public is warned mans’ actions are heating up the earth to fore doomed destruction of mankind.
    Is not the release of methane gas, 21 times heavier than CO2, a matter that would ultimately cause more harm with blowing the ozone open and you know what that would due to heating the planet.
    Let’s go back many years to the days of Charles Hapgood and his communications with Albert Einstein. This can be read in “PATH OF THE POLE” by C. Hapgood.
    In that book you will learn that earth has gone through many cyles of heat/ice etc over many millenia. In consert with this it is to be noted that the magnetic poles of the earth had shifted drastically and even reversed on a couple of occassions.
    During the reversal of magnetic poles it is my hypothesiss that the earth flipped bringing on catastrophic distortion of the earth’s mantle and the release of untold gases from numerous volcanic eruptions. These blankeed the earth preventing solar rays form penetrating and warming of the planet and bringing on an ice age in large localized areas. then animal and plant life awated the dissipation of the cloud cover and over time melting of the ice caps here and there and plant and animal life started over ever so slowly. This has been cyclic over millions and millions of years and is not a new pehnomenon.

  8. Anonymous - June 17, 2007

    “volcanoes contribution to global warming is now a moot point”
    Sorry, but you are flat out wrong. It is true that humans dump much more co2 into the air than volcanos. And if co2 was the only greenhouse gas, your conclusion would be correct. However you forgot about the half a dozen or so other biggies. If you inlcude sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen chloride (HCl), and hydrogen fluoride (HF), volcanos contribute much more to global warming than humans. And don’t forget the cows.
    a single cow produces 400 liters of methane per day (that’s the low estimate, some say as high as 600)
    there are an estimated 1.3 billion cattle world wide, you do the math
    Methane is capable of trapping 25 times more heat than CO2, and is expected to cause between 15 and 17% of the global warming over the next 50 years
    nearly 50% of methane comes from agriculture
    additionally, burning fuel to produce fertiliser to grow feed, to produce meat and to transport it – and clearing vegetation for grazing – produces 9 per cent of all emissions of carbon dioxide,
    Australia’s 140 million sheep and cattle are estimated to produce one seventh of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions
    Livestock also produces more than 100 other polluting gases, including more than two-thirds of the world’s emissions of ammonia, one of the main causes of acid rain.
    A Boeing-747 can burn over 200 tons of fuel in one flight. Plus, the emissions are at altitude making it worse.
    Meanwhile, I’m supposed to give up my SUV and not drive one in 5? Please.

  9. Weldon Beauchamp - September 5, 2007


    I came across your comments on volcanoes while doing some research. While you are correct that all of the “inactive” volcanoes” currently do not put out much in the way of CO2 and other gases. You forget that volcanoes are cataclysmic in nature and they tend to happen in a short period of time. The CO2 and other gases also tend to also be expelled in rapid fashion along with ash and other nasty stuff. So taking readings when a volcano is not active might not represent 3% of the total CO2?

    Also, I think that everyone should take a geology course at some point in their life so that they realize that the earth has been heating up and cooling off on a regular basis for the past 4.5 billion years. Global sea level curves record rises and falls in sea levels for hundreds of millions of years. These rises and falls in sea level are directly related to warming and cooling events in our planets history. These cycles of heating and cooling were going on long before man could contribute to the warming and cooling cycles.

    Carbon dioxide levels of the Late Precambrian (600 MYBP) are estimated to be 18 times present concentration and the Cretaceous (63 MYBP) concentration was 3 to 4 times present concentration. Low estimates during glaciation are around 170 PPM. Recent research has demonstrated that there is historically up to a 400-year lag between temperature changes and consequent carbon dioxide concentration changes (Fischer, et al, 1999). That hypothesis requires climate drivers other than carbon dioxide.(after Lee Gerhard, Kansas Geological Survey).

    Personally, I think that we are contributing in some degree to global warming, but it may be insignificant to the cycles of global warming that were already in place before man learned to use fire? I am not so concerned about the global warming event we are currently experiencing as I am about the global cooling event that will come afterwards.

    Dr. Weldon Beauchamp
    University of Texas at Dallas

  10. Adam Stein - September 5, 2007

    Hi Dr. Weldon,
    I agree that it would be great if people were better informed about the natural sciences in general. But fortunately the climate scientists who research global warming are quite well-versed in these issues, and are well aware of the natural fluctuations in carbon levels. They are also aware of the complex relationship between CO2 and temperature changes.
    Even taking into account all of these issues, they are quite convinced of the reality of anthropogenic global warming. Given that I’m not an expert in geology myself, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  11. someone in high school - November 15, 2007

    it wouls be helpful if you could also putsome information concerning the actual pollution that volcanoes produce, like the amount of sulfur dioxide andd other measurements of how much of what gets put into the atmosphere. and it also a natural cycle, global warming that is, and there are also many other factors that affect the earths climate.
    P.S. what about the other 92% of greenhouse emissions

  12. someone in high school - November 15, 2007

    it would be helpful if you could also putsome information concerning the actual pollution that volcanoes produce, like the amount of sulfur dioxide andd other measurements of how much of what gets put into the atmosphere. and it also a natural cycle, global warming that is, and there are also many other factors that affect the earths climate.
    P.S. what about the other 92% of greenhouse emissions

  13. Jonathan Owen - February 19, 2008

    Man is most likely having an effect on global warming. The degree to which he is doing this is unproven.
    Volcanos cause global cooling and the last 100 years have been relatively benign in terms of volcanic activity – interesting thought is it not ?
    The real problem is, no matter what the cause, how mankind can adapt and survive in the changing world. It makes good sense to burn hydrocarbons as efficiently as we can but we will only be around in the next millenium if we stop breeding to excess. We all want to get richer, we all want to live, consume and make merry the thing is there are just too many of us. Technology will help but the only long term certain solution is for mankind to limit his expansion. Population has tripled in about 50 years .. think about the grains of rice on the chessboard. We are finished if we don’t control our birthrate.

  14. Ferry - March 2, 2008

    Of course there is local pollution. Global pollution, what does that mean? Rising sea levels and temperatures have already been explained by Dr. Weldon Beauchamp. About CO2. It comes from all burning. The hydrocarbons all come from CO2. Is that a cycle or not? It may be a long one, but sure it is. So where did all the CO2 come from that we now produce by burning the fossil fuels, wood, etc? From the aliens, or were one day in the long past there grand reserves of CO2 ? The hype about global warming is a good earner for those that make the case and a living of it, more or less fooling everyone. Should we cut all the wood? No of course not. Should we burn as much as we can? No of course not. Should we locally pollute as much as we can? No of course not. If only for our children. However should we make good use of natural resources? Yes of course, why not? Check it out – who are the higher carbon footprint individuals? Many of them among those who advocate to protect, meantime travelling to Rio, Kyoto, to rallies, etc etc and en passant meeting in conferences – by thousands and telling the rest of the world to reduce. Sad Sad Sad.

  15. Adam Stein - March 2, 2008

    I’m not sure why I bother sometimes, but here goes:
    When carbon is absorbed into plant matter and then released on an annual basis for millenia, we can rightly call the process a cycle.
    When carbon is pulled out of the atmosphere and sequestered in organic compounds over a period of hundreds of millions of years, and then rapidly dug back up and burned over the span of a few decades, we can not legitimately call the process a cycle.
    And how about one more: when your statement begins with the phrase “such-and-such area of scientific inquiry has already been explained by Dr. Sheldon Beauchamp,” you probably need to do a bit more research on the topic.

  16. Jones - June 25, 2008

    “CO2 released every year by volcanoes at about 150-200 million tons”
    I came across an AGU JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 107, NO. B9, 2189 finding stating that Kilauea released an estimated 8500 metric tons every day over a four year study period. What accounts for this large difference?

  17. Adam Stein - June 25, 2008

    Enteric monkey emissions. They skew the sensors.

  18. Tom Arnold - June 25, 2008

    Monkeys are monogastric.

  19. the Skeptic - March 20, 2009

    My specialty is the mind, psychological motivation and personality types, especially what motivates a person to hold the views they do, or take the actions they do (as use in Forensics). Humans are pretty

  20. Adam Stein - March 20, 2009

    This is so awesomely hilarious: a 1,500 essay on cognitive biases, written in the service of the author’s battle with reality. They say the world is made for those who aren’t cursed with self-awareness…

  21. Correction - April 28, 2009

    Helicopters used to measure CO2 output from Active volcanoes can only measure the fringe output of CO2.
    This is due to the High CO2 hot zones that are desirable to measure being turbulently unstable to fly in and so high in CO2 as to kill the engine if allowed to measure the core of the updraft.
    Also, the FAA closes airspace around Active volcanoes.
    So, accurate samples are impossible to measure and confirm as to be coming from specific Volcanoes.
    Balloon method attempts to measure CO2 end in failure due to the thermal updrafts destroying Chromatography equipment and balloons loosing lift and falling in the desired hot zones.
    Until new money is invested to develop better measurement methods we will have rely in inaccurate measurement methods of CO2.
    Real levels are unpredictable due to unknown flow and geologic particle makeup brought up my Volcano.