Even volcanos do not surpass the human contribution to CO2 emissions

A volcanic eruption on the door-step of a national capital is an unusual event. This is however, what happened in Iceland, where an eruption started 40 kilometres south of Reykjavík, Iceland on 19 March. 

The 250,000 strong population of the Reykjavík-area witnessed with their own eyes thousands of tons of burning lava and smoke, and C02 emerge from the ground in Fagradalsfjall. Understandably, many ask if our cars and factories really cause as much pollution as a volcano.

“Volcanos erupt and people can see the effects with their own eyes. However, this is much less than what we humans pollute and emit into the atmosphere. It would have to last for 2-4 years to pollute as much as we do in only one-year,” says geologist Sævar Helgi Bragason at the Institution for the Environment in Iceland.

Eldgos og CO2
Mynd: Helgi Halldórsson

3 days of human emissions

On average there are 45-50 volcanic eruptions happening simultaneously on our planet. Recently the eruption on the island of San Vincent attracted attention, and Sicily´s Etna is active. Surely these smoking volcanoes must be a major contribution to climate change? Perhaps, but they are dwarfs compared to human activity.

“It takes only three days for man-kind to equal the entire annual CO2 emissions of all volcanoes on earth,” says Bragason.

Not only is there no reason to fear that emissions from this newest volcanic activity derail the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but it could actually be relatively climate-friendly.

“These brand-new basalt-rocks are as good as it gets in turning CO2 into stone”, wrote specialists of the Carbfix carbon-capture project at the nearby Hellisheiði geothermal station.

“It is fresh and has a lot of holes which have the capacity to store CO2 for eternity. It could store the equivalent of 300,000 tons of CO2 or one-third of the annual emissions of the Icelandic car fleet,” the specialists wrote on Carbfix’s Facebook page.

The eruption in the valley of Fagridalur, close to Kelavík International Airport in the south-western region of the Reykjanes peninsula, was a surprise although it was preceded by a wave of earthquakes.

 800-year hiatus

Eldgos og CO2
Mynd: Helgi Halldórsson

However, anyone who has visited the area, knows that it is an active volcanic zone. The Blue Lagoon, a well-known tourist attraction, is a spa based on spill-water from a nearby geothermal power station. But the last volcanic eruption was eight centuries ago or when the Icelandic Sagas were being written, the Jutland laws in Denmark were adopted in Denmark and Valdemar Birgersson was king of Sweden.

It lasted for 30 to 300 years depending on definitions since a volcano sometimes takes a rest that can last for years or even decades.

A prophetic novel

The plot of an Icelandic novel, “The Fires” by Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir, actually has an uncanny resemblance to what happened only a few months after its publication in Iceland last autumn. In the novel the heroine is a geologist who monitors volcanic activity and advises authorities on a potential natural catastrophe. In an interview with the UNRIC Björnsdóttir says it was well-known that the area, so close to the capital, is active.

“It is a region that we know, we travel there every day without thinking about the destructive elements below our feet. However, I never imagined that an eruption would start four months after publication after an 800-year hiatus. The chances were nil.”

The reactions to the prophetic elements of Björnsdóttir´s novel were even stronger because her previous dystopian novel “Island” seemed to predict the isolation brought on by COVID-19.

“Hardly a day passes without having to respond to the question of whether I am clairvoyant ( I am not). My theory is that fate reads books and is open to new ideas. In any case the book got a marketing push from a surprising direction and the publisher is really happy!”

600 volcanic eruptions to equal emissions caused by humans

Eldgos og CO2
Mynd: Helgi Halldórsson

Most Icelanders are also happy.  The eruption has caused virtually no damage. The last major volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 caused havoc in international air transport. But even the ash-based eruption of Eyjafjallajökull did not contribute significantly to climate change. “Just to equal the emissions caused by humans, we would have needed 600 such eruptions,” says geologist Bragason.

Despite the proximity to the International airport of Keflavík the new volcano has had no effect on international air travel since it is 1000 ° hot burning lava- not ash – that is being thrown up into the air.

In a short time, the eruption has become a local tourist attraction giving authorities one more COVID-19 related headache.

 A child called Fagradalsfjall

Eldgos og CO2
Mynd: Helgi Halldórsson

In her novel author Björnsdóttir points out that Icelanders love their volcanos so much that they name children after them. Hekla and Katla are popular girls´ names. “No girls to the best of my knowledge are called Krakatau or Tombora. To quote my own novel we are hopeless, as a nation we seem to be attracted to volcanoes like moths to a flame.”

However, no girls or boys in Iceland have been christened Eyjafjallajökull. But who knows if one day a girl or a boy will be named Fagradalsfjall. And why not? Not only is it a gender-neutral word, but has a beautiful meaning: the mountain of a beautiful valley.

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