There are roughly 1,500 potentially active volcanoes around the world, many of which are in the Pacific “ring of fire,” a band of active volcanoes and earthquakes that runs along the Pacific Ocean.
Legends and origin stories have sprung up as a result of their presence, such as the genuine account of Nabukelevu’s volcanic explosion.
Volcanoes, it turns out, are also essential climate regulators
Volcanoes are responsible for both releasing and absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), which has helped to regulate the Earth’s surface temperature over millions of years, according to researchers from the University of Southampton.
Nature Geoscience recently published the findings.
Scientists from the University of Ottawa, the University of Leeds, the Australian National University (ANU), and the University of Sydney collaborated on the project.
They looked at the impact of processes in the solid Earth, seas, and atmosphere during the last 400 million years, i.e. how different processes, such as how the ocean helps trap some of the CO2 in the atmosphere, are linked to other naturally occurring processes.
“It’s a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, these volcanoes ejected massive volumes of CO2, rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
These same volcanoes, on the other hand, assisted in the removal of carbon through quick weathering reactions, according to coauthor Martin Palmer, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Southampton, in a press release.
Using machine-learning techniques and plate tectonic reconstructions, the researchers collaborated to establish an “Earth network.”
This network-assisted them in determining how diverse interactions in Earth’s systems, such as volcanic systems, have altered over time and influenced CO2 levels in the planet’s atmosphere.
Chemical weathering releases calcium, magnesium, potassium, or sodium ions, which they studied extensively.
These elements combine to form minerals that trap CO2 from the atmosphere, allowing the global temperature to be regulated throughout geological time.
Because volcanic rock is fragmented and chemically reactive, it can weather down quickly and wind up in the oceans, where it can help trap CO2.
These new findings call into question the long-held belief that the ocean is the primary driver of natural carbon uptake and weathering.
Volcanoes, according to lead author Tom Gernon, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Southampton, act as a “geological thermostat,” regulating CO2 levels on the planet.
When asked if volcanoes can help with the current climate issue, Gernon notes that CO2 emissions are at all-time highs.
“Traditionally, global weathering is thought to be governed by a kind of interplay between… continental interiors and the oceans—the seafloor.
This is frequently thought to be the primary cause of [weathering]… We show that this isn’t always the case,” explains Gernon.
As a result, volcanoes may play a role in the weathering process.
But, in the face of record-high carbon emissions and a fast-changing climate, are volcanoes the answer? According to Gernon, it’s more difficult than it appears.
“Volcanoes aren’t a solution in and of themselves,” Gernon argues
“If we can construct that system and try to deploy certain rock compositions as an enhanced weathering tool to take down CO2, that could play a role… [However, volcanic rock] is not a panacea for the climate dilemma.
It must be simply one of many solutions required for the various mitigation actions recommended by the IPCC.”
He expects that, in the future, the machine learning technology and the data gathered will lead to potential solutions involving volcanic rocks.
According to the Washington Post, a 2020 research found that spreading broken-down boulders on fields can “remove roughly half of the amount of that greenhouse gas currently produced by Europe.”
This works because the rock dust’s carbonate components dissolve when it comes into touch with water.
CO2 is sucked in to produce bicarbonate ions, which are subsequently washed away into the ocean to generate carbon-storing carbonate rocks.
“I have colleagues working on enhanced weathering mineral carbonation—grinding up minerals and testing what compositions and grain size distributions work best [for weathering],” he explains. “Those tests must be carried out to demonstrate the applicability or efficacy of this approach.”