What If Every Volcano on Earth Erupted at Once?

Written by Becky Oskin, livescience.com

Whether it’s glowing lava snaking into the sea or lightning blooming in billowing ash clouds, the sight of an erupting volcano inspires awe and wonder.active volcano

Now imagine 1,500 of these suckers all shooting off at once. That’s how many active volcanoesdot the Earth, plus an unknown number hidden under the ocean. Every day, between 10 and 20 volcanoes are erupting somewhere on Earth, but scientists say the chance of every volcano on the planet erupting at once is so small that it’s impossible. But what if it did happen? Would Earth as it we know it survive?

Not likely, said Parv Sethi, a geologist at Radford University in Virginia. Even if only the volcanoes on land blasted in sync, the effects would trigger an environmental domino chain many, many times more powerful than a nuclear winter, Sethi said. “Things will become so bad that I wouldn’t want to survive on an Earth like this,” he told Live Science.

The two big hazards from a worldwide volcanic cataclysm are ash and volcanic gases. (While the explosions and outpourings of lava would be deadly to people living close by, the number of deaths would pale compared to those caused by the ensuing climate change.)

Plunged into darkness

Sethi predicts that a thick layer of ash would blanket the Earth, completely blocking incoming sunlight.

“The planet would be pitched into complete dark, and that is going to devastate photosynthesis, destroy crop yields and cause temperatures to plunge,” Sethi said. The ash would linger in the atmosphere for up to 10 years, he added.

Yet, not every volcano on Earth is primed to pump out large amounts of ash; some, like Hawaii’s volcanoes, usually put out gentle lava flows. But the list of 1,500 potential active volcanoes, compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, includes whoppers like the Yellowstone supervolcano, which could cover the contiguous United States in a thin layer of ash.

Biting cold

Acid rain would wipe out any crops that survived burial by ash, Sethi said. Volcanic gases include nasties such as hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, which can become acid rain when they condense high in the atmosphere. That acid rain would contaminate groundwater and the ocean’s surface. Ocean acidification would kill off corals and marine creatures with hard shells. The extinctions would travel up the ocean food chain, wiping out fish and other marine life.

Researchers have documented a similar connection between ocean acidification, mass extinctions in Earth’s past and volcanic mega-eruptions called flood basalts. For instance, these huge lava outpourings have been correlated to extinctions at the end of the Permian Period252 million years ago, the Triassic Period 201 million years ago, and the end of Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago.

“Flood basalts and mass extinction events are linked,” said Paul Renne, a geologist at the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California who specializes in figuring out the age of rocks.

Explosive volcanic blasts also shoot ash, dust and gas into the stratosphere. These particles reflect sunlight away from Earth and can significantly cool the planet, albeit briefly. For instance, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 — one of the two largest eruptions in the 20th century — cooled parts of the world by up to 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit (0.4 degrees Celsius) for two years. [Countdown: History’s Most Destructive Volcanoes]

Turn up the heat

Volcanic eruptions do release the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which could help offset global cooling from ash and stratospheric particles. But Sethi wondered whether 1,500 simultaneous volcanic eruptions would overwhelm Earth’s systems.

“It’s going to be like turning the knob on a gas stove to the broil setting,” he said. “The only question is whether it is actually going to change the [atmosphere’s] composition so much that we have carbon dioxide poisoning in the atmosphere. Either way, we’re going to be cooked, so to speak,” Sethi said.

Ancient black shales, a type of marine rock, indicate comparable calamities happened in Earth’s history, said Sethi, who studies these Cretaceous Period rocks. The rock record suggests carbon dioxide levels soared in the Cretaceous, killing off marine life in some parts of the ocean and shutting down ocean circulation. During the Late Cretaceous Period, some 90 million years ago, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were around 2.5 times today’s levels, scientists think.

The tiniest survive

So what life could survive this deadly volcanic outburst?

“It will be the time of the extremophiles,” Sethi predicts. These organisms already live in extremely acidic environments, such as Yellowstone’s hot springs, or in deep undersea vents, protected from the surface devastation. “It would be like a clean slate for these organisms to do their evolutionary thing.”

The sci-fi strategy is also possible: A few humans live on in orbit or in deep underground bunkers built by well-financed governments or rich moguls, waiting for the atmosphere to clear.

“The lucky ones would be the dead ones in this scenario,” Sethi said.

Follow Becky Oskin @beckyoskin. Follow LiveScience @livescience,Facebook & Google+Originally published on Live Science.

Comments (11)

  • Avatar

    John A Marshall

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    168W/m2 comes from a crap model spreading solar radiation over the whole planet’s surface. ie., no day/night cycles. Reality is different. We get 960W/m2 on the subsun point of the surface abd an average of half that, 480W/m2, for the whole lit hemisphere. 480W/m2 equates to a temperature of 33C 960W/m2 to 88C which is far closer than the IPCC estimate of -18C.
    Crap thinking has led to the crap IPCC model and the GHE.

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    geran

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    “The Sun cannot heat the surface to the observed temperatures with direct radiation…”

    Too funny. Doug, have you ever heard the expression “It’s the Sun, stupid”?

    You might want to consider the Sun in you next book….

    • Avatar

      geran

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      I sure hope you didn’t teach anyone the incorrect use of the S-B equation, such as dividing the actual surface flux by 4!

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    Mack

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    “The Sun cannot heat the surface to the observed temperatures with direct radiation that is absorbed by the surface, that being a mean of 168W/sq.m. or less in some energy diagrams”
    Well hell now Doug …ever thought that those energy diagrams could be wrong. NASA, the IPPC and just about everybody else says they’re right. So they must right, ..right Doug?. There was a time when just about everybody thought the Earth was flat too Doug.
    168w/sq.m yearly average would not stop the oceans from icing over , but we have Nasa the IPPC and all the rest saying that about 324w/sq.m.mean of “backradiation” is belting down from the atmosphere 24/7 ,( You must be hellishly hot at nighttime Doug. You’re only getting 168w/sq.m solar but there’s 324w/sq.m. BELTING DOWN FROM THE ATMOSPHERE all night!)
    No , thats right you poo poo all this amount of “backradiation” but have substituted it with a gravitational, thermal effect. !?

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      Mack

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      “No solar radiation belts down from the at night” I didn’t say that you intelligent loon.
      I said “backradiation”, not SOLAR radiation. You’re twisting and turning,sticking your fingers in your ears, . I can understand, there’s a gut churning realisation that your life’s work is invalid. You can at least take comfort from the fact that you’re on the right side of history,and not part of the scientific populace who’ve been “lead to believe” that Man could alter the global climate. People in about the 2080’s will look back and say ‘There was this huge scientific hoax back then when an old, outdated, unreal, crackpot “greenhouse” theory was resurrected by a politician with the collusion of some unethical scientists.” It turned out to be presumptive, arrogant nonsense”

      • Avatar

        Mack

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        The “backradiation’ belting down from the atmosphere is illustrated here…http://www.ipcc.ch/graphics/ar4-wg1/jpg/faq-1-1-fig-1.jpg
        There it is Doug ..You agree with them on the 340..342w/sq.m at the TOA. You agree with them on the 161w/sq.m or 163 or 168w/sq.m. at the surface (the choice is yours)…so that leaves them saying 324 w/sq.m of backradiation from the atmosphere (belting down)….so what say you? Where’s your missing 324 w/sq.m.
        Where’s your energy from, to prevent the oceans from freezing up? ..A gravitational- thermal effect?….yeah,right.

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        Mack

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        When I said “arrogant” nonsense Doug, here is a little glimpse of such arrogance…It’s from The Times , Con cise Atlas of The World .1985 edition..At the front of the atlas there’s a whole section of written guff including a section about the “Greenhouse” effect. There’s the usual pictorial description showing the curved surface of the Earth with large wide red arrows incoming and smaller red arrows leaving the surface to strike this outer red layer and then yet smaller red arrows going on into space.
        (Note everything’s red.) In the script…”Man is now so powerful, however, that he could himself suddenly upset the whole balance, changing the climate and the composition of the atmosphere”
        We were pretty powerful back in ’85 Doug. 🙄

  • Avatar

    Al Shelton

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    “Volcanic eruptions do release the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which could help offset global cooling from ash and stratospheric particles” said Parv Sethi
    Since when does CO2 cause global warming?
    You must believe the pseudo-science of the UN IPCC.

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    Al Shelton

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    “Volcanic eruptions do release the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which could help offset global cooling from ash and stratospheric particles.”
    WHAT? Since when does CO2 cause global warming?
    Do you still believe the pseudo-science of the UN IPCC?

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    Joseph A Olson

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    Earth is the same distance from the Sun as the Moon, therefore receives the same solar heat flux. The hottest temperature on Earth is 200C cooler than the hottest on the Moon. The coldest temperature on Earth is 75C warmer than the coldest on the Moon. There are three principle factors in this disparity, atmosphere, oceans and internal fission. The atmosphere absorbs and dissipates by convection 30% of the incoming solar energy, cooling the Earth by day. Limited atmospheric absorption reduces cooling by night. Water has the highest Specific Heat of any substance and stores tremendous heat. Water exists in solid, liquid and gas forms and transfers energy with every change of state, cooling the Earth. See “Greenhouse Gas Ptolemaic Model” at PSI for more on these factors. Earth’s variable internal fission energy is underestimated by several magnitudes and raises the minimum temperature, see “Earth’s Missing Geothermal Flux” at PSI and “Volcanic CO2” at geologist-1011 site.

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      Mack

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      Well said Mr Olson, That’s good science stuff. Keep up your good work.

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