At a glance – Do volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans?
Posted on 19 September 2023 by John Mason, BaerbelW
On February 14, 2023 we announced our Rebuttal Update Project. This included an ask for feedback about the added “At a glance” section in the updated basic rebuttal versions. This weekly blog post series highlights this new section of one of the updated basic rebuttal versions and serves as a “bump” for our ask. This week features “Do volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans?“. More will follow in the upcoming weeks. Please follow the Further Reading link at the bottom to read the full rebuttal and to join the discussion in the comment thread there.
At a glance
The false claim that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans keeps resurfacing every so often. This is despite debunkings from bodies like the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Such claims may be easy to make, but they fall apart once a little scientific scrutiny is applied. So, to settle this once and for all, let’s venture out into the fascinating world of geology, plate tectonics and volcanism.
According to the USGS, there are 1,350 active volcanoes on Earth at the moment. An active volcano is one that can erupt, even if it’s decades since it last did so. As of June 2023, 48 volcanoes were in continuous eruption, meaning activity occurs every few weeks. Out of those, around 20 will be erupting on any particular day. Several of those will have erupted by the time you have finished reading this.
People are familiar with a typical volcano, an elevated area with one or more craters or fissures from which lava periodically erupts. But there are also the submarine volcanoes such as those along the mid-oceanic ridges. These vast undersea mountain ranges are a key component of Earth’s Plate Tectonics system. The basalts they continually erupt solidify into the oceanic crust making up the flooring of the deep oceans. Oceanic crust is constantly moving away from any mid-ocean ridge in the process known as ‘sea-floor spreading’.
Oceanic crust is chemically reactive. It reacts with seawater, allowing the formation of huge quantities of minerals including those carrying carbon in the form of carbonate. But oceanic crust is geologically young. That is because it is also being consumed at subduction zones – the deep ocean ‘trenches’ where it is forced down into Earth’s mantle.
When oceanic crust is forced down into the mantle at subduction zones, it heats up and begins to melt into magma. Carbonate minerals in that crust lose their carbon – it is literally cooked out of them. Magmas then transport the CO2 and other gases up through Earth’s crust and if they reach the surface, volcanic eruptions occur and the CO2 and other gases leave the magma for the atmosphere.
So here you can see a long-term cycle in which carbon gets trapped in the sea-floor, subducted into the mantle, liberated into new magma and erupted again. It’s a key part of Earth’s Slow Carbon Cycle.
Volcanoes are also dangerous. That’s why we have studied them for centuries. We have hundreds of years of observations of all sorts of eruptions, at Earth’s surface and beneath the oceans. Those observations include millions of geochemical analyses of both lavas and gases.
Because of all of that data collected over so many years, we have a very good idea of the amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere by volcanic activity. According to the USGS, it is between 180 and 440 million tons a year.
In 2019, according to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (2022), human CO2 emissions were:
44.25 thousand million tons.
That’s at least a hundred times the amount emitted by volcanoes. Case dismissed.
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