Volcanoes and Earth

Volcanoes and Earth

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VOLCANOES AND THE EARTH SYSTEM

EFFECTS OF VOLCANIC GASES

Most of the gases in the atmosphere originally come from the Earth's interior. Gases within magma are dissolved because of high pressures beneath the earth's surface, but reduced pressure at the surface allows dissolved gases to expand and escape. When a volcano erupts, gases such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, chlorine, argon, sulfur, carbon monoxide, fluorine, and water vapor escape into the atmosphere.

Although many of the gases emitted during a volcanic eruption can be helpful to the earth, a lot of the gases can be disruptive to the earth system. Quite possibly the only gas that is generally better for the atmosphere than the rest of the gases is water vapor. Although it is a greenhouse gas, water vapor from volcanic eruptions adds to the earth's water supply. Sulfur dioxide emitted from volcanic eruptions is one of the main chemical compounds responsible for the earth's already dangerous acid rain problem. Carbon dioxide is universally considered one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases on the planet. Increases in this gas have been proven to cause an increase in the average temperature of the Earth. Global warming can result in the melting of polar ice caps. This melting causes the rising of ocean levels, which can flood coastal cities.

Volcanoes contribute about 110 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Although this can be viewed as a bad problem for the ever-increasing problem of global warming, volcanoes can actually cause the opposite effect. Volcanoes can help cool the earth's surface by forming sulfuric acid aerosols that reflect the sun's rays. This is contradicted though by the carbon dioxide that adds to the greenhouse effect.

Weather patterns can be disrupted by sulfur dioxide. In a reaction involving the sun and water vapor, sulfur dioxide can turn into sulfuric acid. This sulfuric acid can combine with rain and cause acid rain to fall to earth. Sulfuric aerosol remains in the air long after the volcano has erupted. These aerosols can last for years and studies have shown a strong correlation between periods of long-term sulfuric aerosol layers in the atmosphere and a resulting temperature decrease during those same years. Without replenishment, the sulfuric acid aerosol layer around the earth is gradually depleted, but it is renewed by each eruption rich in sulfur dioxide. This was determined after the eruptions of such volcanoes as El Chichon in Mexico and Mt.

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Pinatubo in the Philippines.

A gas that has a negative effect on the earth system is chlorine. When it is released from an eruption, it is added to the chlorine that already exists in the atmosphere as a result of the industrialization of man. Because it reacts so well with oxygen molecules, chlorine breaks down the ozone layer. To make the matter worse, chlorine atoms can recycle themselves over one thousand times and thus cause serious problems in terms of global warming.
Fluorine gas that is emitted from volcanic eruptions falls to the earth after it condenses in rain. Excess fluorine on plants and in the water can kill animals by causing fluorisis, which destroys their bones.

Gases emitted from volcanic eruptions can be both harmful and helpful to the earth system. Although sulfur dioxide has shown a decrease in the earth's average temperature, many harmful effects resulting from emission of gases seem to outweigh the positive effects. Carbon dioxide has been linked to the greenhouse effect and quite possibly could be the most harmful greenhouse gas. Sulfur dioxide is beneficial in that it can cool the earth, but it is also a major problem due to its direct causation of acid rain. Fluorine has been proven to cause death among animals. The appearance is that volcanic eruptions are generally more negative towards the earth system than they are positive.

Mount Pinatubo

Volcanic unrest at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines began when steam explosions occurred on April 2, 1991. This volcanic activity resulted in the world's largest volcanic eruption in more than half a century. Volcanologists from around the world forecasted the events to occur in the coming weeks and organized massive evacuations that saved thousands. When the day came for the tremendous eruption that occurred on June 15, 1991, a typhoon still killed more than 300 and caused massive property damage, both caused by the tremendous mudflows and sedimentation as a result of the blast.

The Scientific Community

Volcanologists and geologists are somewhat divided as to the issue of whether volcanic activity is beneficial to the earth system. There are arguments on both sides as to the positive or negative effects of these eruptions. On the one hand, volcanoes can be very harmful to the atmosphere and to the earth system simply because of the abundance of harmful gases emitted from these massive eruptions. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and chlorine can be extremely detrimental to the earth's already frightening problem with global warming. Also, sulfur dioxide has been linked to acid rain, a very drastic environmental concern.

Contrary to these scientifically proven problems, there is also the sentiment within the scientific community that volcanic activity could possibly be more beneficial than detrimental to the earth system. Arguments from this perspective include the fact that the same sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain is also causing sulfuric aerosols that cool the earth's surface temperature. Also, although the original mudslides destroy land upon the initial eruption, studies have shown that just a few years later, the area around the volcano can be extremely fertile and can be helpful in terms of agricultural output.
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