A new study claims to have found a link between glacier size and volcanic activity, suggesting that current global warming could eventually lead to more eruptions.
Climate scientists agree that volcanic eruptions can affect the global climate, but now some researchers are going even further to claim that climatic changes can affect eruptions.
“Climate change caused by humans is creating rapid ice melt in volcanically active regions. In Iceland, this has put us on a path to more frequent volcanic eruptions,” study co-author Graeme Swindles, of the University of Leeds, said in a statement.
The new study compared volcanic ash deposits in Europe with glacial coverage in Iceland some 5,500 to 4,500 years ago. Researchers said climate cooling increased glacial coverage in Iceland during that time period and decreased volcanic activity.
With Icelandic glaciers currently in retreat, the scientists said we could see an increase in volcanic eruptions. The basic idea is that less ice means less pressure on the Earth’s surface, increase magma flow and mantle melt.
“The human effect on global warming makes it difficult to predict how long the time lag will be but the trends of the past show us more eruptions in Iceland can be expected in the future,” Swindles said.
There’s a big caveat, however, that makes comparing glacial coverage to volcanic activity a little problematic — Swindles’s study found a 600-year lag time between glacier changes and changes in eruption frequency.
There’s an “apparent time lag of ~600 yr between the climate event and change in eruption frequency,” the study found, adding that an “increase in volcanic eruptions due to ongoing deglaciation since the end of the Little Ice Age may not become apparent for hundreds of years.”
A lot can happen in 600 years. Scientific American also talked with other experts who said Iceland may just be “extra-sensitive” to glacial movements because of its unique geology.
Swindles predicted “a lot more volcanic activity in areas of the world where glaciers and volcanoes interact.” He told Scientific American there could be more eruptions in “the U.S. Pacific Northwest, southern South America and even Antarctica.”
“Volcanic ash and emissions can be deadly,” Swindles said. “If not at least very damaging.”
So far, geoscientists say there’s not been an increase in volcanic activity in recent decades. Oregon State University’s volcanism program says “[t]he scientific consensus is that there has NOT been a recent increase in volcanic activity.”
“Keep in mind that we have only been scientifically investigating most volcanic regions for a few hundred years,” reads the program’s website. “If there presently happens to be a cluster of eruptions, it would not necessarily signal an increase in activity.”
What’s also interesting is that an increase in volcanic activity would also have the effect of throwing more aerosols high up into the atmosphere, that has a cooling effect.
The 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines threw 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere, according to NASA, and resulted in a sharp drop in tropospheric temperature.
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