Volcano clouds Earth Day

May 3, 2010
Despite a blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the biggest polluter on Earth Day—Apr. 22—was the earth itself, following the earlier eruption of a volcano under Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier with an ash plume up to 11 km high.

Despite a blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the biggest polluter on Earth Day—Apr. 22—was the earth itself, following the earlier eruption of a volcano under Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier with an ash plume up to 11 km high.

Prevailing winds carried the ash across Europe forcing unprecedented closings of airspace in several countries for fear of catastrophic damage to aircraft. International economists at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said the ash fallout "may have dashed hopes of a recovery" of the European economy this year. Some estimated the loss to the airlines alone at $2 billion while total business losses during April might climb as high as $10 billion, "even assuming no further travel disruptions."

Flights resumed Apr. 20 as the ash plume diminished. In New York, the price of oil rebounded 2.5% from a 3-week low and a 3-day losing streak on renewed demand for jet fuel, which had fallen by two-thirds during the flight ban.

It was the second eruption of that volcano in less than a month, after lying dormant for 200 years. There are some 1,500 volcanoes—mostly on land—that have been active in the last 10,000 years, and an unknown, likely larger number under the sea. About 600 volcanoes have erupted in recorded history, with 50-70 erupting in any one year.

A volcano eruption often blows ash high into the atmosphere where winds then spread particles around the world. Those particles block some of the incoming solar radiation, triggering global cooling for up to 2 years. Eruptions also emit sulfur dioxide gas that turns into sulfuric acid particles in the stratosphere and reflect sunlight away from the planet. The 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia was believed to be the largest in 10,000 years and put so much material in the earth's atmosphere that 1816 became the "year without a summer," with snow in New England and Europe in June, July, and August.

Volcanoes produce halide acid, which can destroy ozone in the stratosphere. After the 1991 eruptions of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines and Mt. Hudson in Chile, satellite data showed a 15-20% ozone loss at high latitudes and a greater than 50% loss over the Antarctic. Pinatubo produced the largest sulfur oxide cloud of the 20th century. The aerosol plumes of Mt. Pinatubo and Mt. Hudson diffused around the globe and caused mean world temperatures to drop 1° C. for 2 years.

Volcanoes reportedly emit 130 million tons/year of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But environmentalists claim manmade CO2 emissions are 150 times greater. Small amounts of global warming caused by greenhouse gases from volcanoes are offset by the far-greater global cooling from particles erupted into the stratosphere, environmentalists say.

Earth Day

The Apr. 22 Earth Day was conceived by the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) after viewing the infamous oil spill in California's Santa Barbara Channel in 1969. Taking his cue from antiwar demonstrations in that period, he proposed an environmental "teach-in" on all university campuses in the US to "infuse the student antiwar energy into the environmental cause." He said he picked Apr. 22 as the permanent date because it did not conflict with exams, spring breaks, or religious holidays, and was late enough in the spring for decent weather.

Nelson unveiled his idea to a conservation group in Seattle, Wash., in September 1969 and again 6 days later at a meeting of the United Auto Workers in Atlantic City, NJ. News media picked up the story, and Nelson's office was swamped with would-be participants. From that point on, he said, the event organized itself.

Some 20 million people in thousands of colleges and communities participated in the first Earth Day on Apr. 22, 1970. Some claim it was the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The nonprofit network that now coordinates the annual Earth Day claims it's the world's "largest secular holiday" with more than 500 million participants in 175 countries.

Nelson is lionized today not only by environmentalists but also by advocates of ending immigration—both legal and illegal—into the US. He once said, "…in this country, it's phony to say 'I'm for the environment but not for limiting immigration.'" At the end, he was disappointed environmentalists were not pushing to end population growth.

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