Volcanoes, climate, and a doubtful solution

By Jack Williams ©2015

My story on “The volcanic-Climate Connection,” which was published in the January-February 2010 issue of Weatherwise magazine, focuses on how a few extremely large volcanoes in the past have cooled the Earth for a few months.

At the end of the story I mention that the cooling effects of past eruptions have led some people, including a few atmospheric scientists, to argue for what would amount to artificial volcanic eruptions to slow global warming.

Such proposals are one of the most-discussed geoengineering approaches to countering the effects of a warming earth on global climate.

The Mount Rainier volcano (right) looms over the Seattle skyline. The U.S. Geological Survey considers it the potentially most dangerous volcano in the United States. Photo by Darlene Shields

The Mount Rainier volcano (right) looms over the Seattle skyline. The U.S. Geological Survey considers it the potentially most dangerous volcano in the United States. Photo by Darlene Shields

One of the most prominent sources of such a geoengineering argument is the book Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, which was number 10 on the Washington Post’s January 25 non-fiction best selling books list. It advocates  injecting huge amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. As my Weatherwise article explains, sulfur dioxide from a few volcanic eruptions has not only cooled the earth on average but has had other effects such as warming some places and causing droughts in some areas.

Many atmospheric scientists argue that geoengineering is a bad idea, or at best an idea that needs a lot of study before it’s tried.

Elizabeth Korbert’s article “Hosed: Is there a quick fix for the climate” in the Nov. 16 issue of the New Yorker magazine is an accurate and entertaining critique of Levitt’s and Dubner’s idea for mimicking large volcanoes to slow warming. You don’t have to be familiar with science to understand and enjoy it.

By the way, Korbert’s book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change gives you a close-up view of the ways that climate change is affecting different parts of earth and the people who live there.

A more-technical argument against the Superfreakonomics argument is the Oct. 29 article on the Real Climate blog, “An An Open Letter to Steve Levitt” by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, who like the book’s co-author Levitt is a University of Chicago professor.

When I first read this letter on Real Climate I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a news headline, “U. of Chicago Professor Challenges Another to a Duel.”

My latest book, The AMS Weather Book, doesn’t go into detail about volcanic effects on climate, but does mention this in Chapter 12, which covers climate change. But, the book’s supplemental Web site article Explorations: Weather Control has links at the bottom to some articles on climate geoengineering.

In addition to the climatic effects of a few large eruptions, my Weatherwise story also describes how a volcanic eruption of any size is potentially a huge hazard for any airplane that flies into the volcano’s ash cloud. I describe that happened to two Boeing 747s that lost power from all four engines for a while.

Unless you subscribe to Weatherwise, you’ll be able to read only the first two paragraphs of the my story on the Web. In addition to describing when and how volcanoes have cooled the earth, the article explains how the volcano-cooled summer of 1816 led to the creation of two, still-popular horror stories that are now known mainly for their movie versions.

If you fly from North America to Asia across the northern Pacific–one of the world’s most volcanically active regions– you’ll be interested in what my article has to say about what’s being done to protect airplanes and their passengers from volcanic ash.

Finally, I recommend a Weatherwise subscription for anyone who’s fascinated by weather.

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