Volcanoes, the key to combating the climate crisis?

Volcano Shot

Augustine Volcano | Image credit: original from Wikimedia Commons

To be clear, I am no climate scientist and an environmentalist only in as much as I recycle my trash, donate any worn-out clothing, and walk the 3-mile commute to work.  But while my carbon footprint might be minimal in at least a few inconsequential respects, I am admittedly quite liberal with my AC usage, shameless in my consumption of Starbuck’s honey packets, and as a certain colleague is quick to remind me every time I’m caught rummaging through the office collection of sporks and knives, rather extravagant with plasticware.  In spite of these contradictions, I try to remain fairly conscious of my impact on the environment, hoping others might do the same, but how do these small efforts play out in the grand scheme of things?  Do they matter at all in the face of an ever-deepening climate crisis?

For the big picture, I defer to Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University.  He begins by saying, “There is absolutely 100% certainty that [the] rise in CO2 is due to our burning of fossil fuels, as can be seen by the steady shift toward an increased concentration of CO2 molecules that contain a specific type of carbon isotope that is far more common in fossil fuels than in the pre-industrial atmosphere.”  That shift, explains Williams, is especially alarming if one takes into account the extent of it.  Since the mid-1800s, the global carbon dioxide concentration has increased by 120 parts per million (ppm).  And to put this into perspective, Williams has me consider the difference between a glacial period and a non-glacial period; these two extremes are separated by a mere 100 ppm.

But one doesn’t need to be a climate scientist to appreciate the that there are significant consequences for such drastic changes to atmospheric chemistry — some of which are being felt far sooner than predicted.  According to reports compiled by the National Research Council, the Arctic perennial sea ice cover has defied earlier models by shrinking at a rate of 13 percent every ten years.  Along with this shrinkage of polar ice, agricultural yields have suffered major hits, as have many ecosystems unable to adapt to shifting weather patterns and increasingly acidic oceans.  Finally, for the sorry lot of us living in low-lying cities like New York, Boston, Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, we may eventually find ourselves below sea level and quite possibly, say the reports, “submerged in the absence of protective dikes or other adaptive measures.”


Melting Qori Kalis glacier, Peru | Image credit: Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson, Distinguished University Professor, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, The Ohio State University

So, what hope is there?  Can any of this damage be undone?  Surely, no amount of restraint shown when using plastic utensils will make any sort of marked difference.

“Even if an aggressive global mitigation program is undertaken, substantial reductions in greenhouse gas levels would not be realized for several decades, and the halting or reversing of some of the detrimental effects…would not follow for many decades or even centuries,” writes the committee in the National Research Council reports.

Park Williams agrees with this timeline.  “Simply put,” he tells me, “it is impossible to get our atmospheric chemistry and climate back to what we might consider ‘normal’ on any kind of timeframe that we really care about.”

Just when I think the prognosis couldn’t get any worse, I become acquainted with a paper recently published in Science Advances.  Its projections extend our carbon legacy not decades or centuries, but thousands of years.  One of the four authors, Ken Caldeira of Stanford University, asserts that “if we ‘burn it all,’ even 10,000 years into the future, it will still be something like 9°C (about 16°F) warmer on average than it is today.”  What’s more, he and his team found that there’s enough fossil fuel in the ground to melt all of Antarctica.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of the grassroots climate change movement 350.org, seems mildly more optimistic about the future.  “Happily, forests and oceans remove carbon for free, so if we stop pouring it into the atmosphere, they will scrub it,” he tells me via e-mail.  And while he is absolutely right, nature does indeed remove a percentage of our CO2 emissions — as much as half each year, according to the National Research Council reports — some scientists worry that nature doesn’t act quickly enough.

“The natural processes that could lower the CO2 level are far too slow to be useful,” says Klaus Lackner, Director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University.

In addition, “land is not available for adding more trees to provide an increased carbon sink; indeed, deforestation is occurring due to increasing population,” explains Stuart Licht, a professor at George Washington University.


The shrinking Aral Sea | Image credit: Moderate Resolution imagine Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Terra satellite, NASA’s Earth Observatory

So, it would seem that not only is mother nature’s recovery time too slow, but also her overall capacity to heal is not what it used to be.  This conundrum has led scientists to explore ways in which humans could one day intervene.  Two potential interventions are described at length by the National Research Council: one being carbon dioxide removal schemes and the other, albedo modification.

This first option, as the name suggests, involves pulling carbon from the air through a variety of means, and scientists like Licht and Lackner are pioneering promising new technologies to make this approach viable, scale-able, and perhaps equally important, cost-effective.  Licht, for instance, is developing a system that uses CO2 from the air to grow carbon nanofibers, an otherwise very expensive material that has potential applications for the aerospace industry.  The second option, on the other hand, seems as if it were ripped from the pages of futurist fiction.

Albedo modification, as it is most generally known, entails reflecting sunlight back into space so that the Earth absorbs less of it.  And one of the strategies engineers would employ to alter Earth’s albedo models itself after a volcanic blast.  In the wake of a real eruption, ash shoots into the air, blocking out sunlight and eventually causing temperatures to drop.  Depending on the size of the explosion, this planetary cooling could go on for several years.  To create this same effect artificially, aerosols would have to be injected into the stratosphere — a seemingly impossible operation to execute on any large scale.  Nevertheless, scientists have carried out tests over the course of 15 years and feel confident that they could see results within just a few years of deployment.

But even if this strategy were to work, experts like Stuart Licht are quite wary of modifying the Earth’s albedo.  Licht likens it to repairing a watch with a sledge hammer, and Lackner is equally skeptical.

“Albedo modification is akin to using a tourniquet to stop the immediate bleeding,” he tells me.  “It does not avoid the subsequent trip to the hospital, and it may cause irreparable damage.”  In other words, it’s a stopgap measure, which does nothing to address the underlying problem itself — that is, an overabundance of CO2 in the atmosphere.  More troubling still, scientists can’t possibly predict what might happen once they begin tinkering with the planet’s reflectivity.  Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano that exploded nearly 200 years ago; after decimating the villages nestled around it, the blast ushered in years of intense cooling followed by widespread crop failure, famine, and disease around the world.

In any case, leading experts agree that capture and storage strategies are far more likely to be deployed over albedo modification.  But for these technologies to go forward, costs must go down, says Lackner.  Equally important in creating momentum, he adds, is societal acceptance.  “Until it is understood that the continued accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to irreversible damages, any cost of dealing with CO2 emissions will be considered too high.”

So, perhaps in some way, change does begin with me, in which case I should probably start bringing silverware to office lunch.