Environment: Study quantifies volcano pollution

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Plumes of smoke and flames rise from an eruption at Bárðarbunga volcano, Iceland, in 2014. The amount of sulphur dioxide emitted in the six-month eruption was treble that given off by all of Europe’s industry. Credit Dr. John Stevenson

12,000 tons of sulphur dioxide per day …

Staff Report

Researchers in the UK have helped show how volcanoes can affect air quality by quantifying emissions from last year’s eruption of Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano.

“The eruption discharged lava at a rate of more than 200 cubic metres per second, which is equivalent to filling five Olympic-sized swimming pools in a minute,” said Dr Anja Schmidt from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, who led the study.

“Six months later, when the eruption ended, it had produced enough lava to cover an area the size of Manhattan,” Schmidt said. “In the study, we were concerned with the quantity of sulphur dioxide emissions, with numbers that are equally astonishing. In the beginning, the eruption emitted about eight times more sulphur dioxide per day than is emitted from all man-made sources in Europe per day,” she said.

The researchers said the volcano released up to 120,000 tons of sulphur dioxide per day. The eruption last year was the biggest in Iceland for more than 200 years. It released a river of lava across northern Iceland, and lasted for six months.

The scientists from the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh and the Met Office, used data from satellite sensors to map sulphur dioxide pollution from the eruption. These were reproduced by computer simulations of the spreading gas cloud.

Sulphur dioxide is also produced by burning fossil fuels and industrial processes such as smelting. Man-made sulphur dioxide production has been falling since 1990, and was recorded at 12,000 tonnes per day in 2010.

“This eruption produced lava instead of ash, and so it didn’t impact on flights,  but it did affect air quality. These results help scientists predict where pollution from future eruptions will spread,” said Dr John Stevenson, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who took part in the study, said:

The study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, was supported by The Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, amongst others.

 

 

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