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Do volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

Humans emit 100 times more CO2 than volcanoes.

Climate Myth...

Volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans

"Human additions of CO2 to the atmosphere must be taken into perspective.

Over the past 250 years, humans have added just one part of CO2 in 10,000 to the atmosphere. One volcanic cough can do this in a day." (Ian Plimer)

At a glance

The false claim that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans keeps resurfacing every so often. This is despite debunkings from bodies like the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Such claims may be easy to make, but they fall apart once a little scientific scrutiny is applied. So, to settle this once and for all, let's venture out into the fascinating world of geology, plate tectonics and volcanism.

According to the USGS, there are 1,350 active volcanoes on Earth at the moment. An active volcano is one that can erupt, even if it's decades since it last did so. As of June 2023, 48 volcanoes were in continuous eruption, meaning activity occurs every few weeks. Out of those, around 20 will be erupting on any particular day. Several of those will have erupted by the time you have finished reading this.

People are familiar with a typical volcano, an elevated area with one or more craters or fissures from which lava periodically erupts. But there are also the submarine volcanoes such as those along the mid-oceanic ridges. These vast undersea mountain ranges are a key component of Earth's Plate Tectonics system. The basalts they continually erupt solidify into the oceanic crust making up the flooring of the deep oceans. Oceanic crust is constantly moving away from any mid-ocean ridge in the process known as 'sea-floor spreading'.

Oceanic crust is chemically reactive. It reacts with seawater, allowing the formation of huge quantities of minerals including those carrying carbon in the form of carbonate. But oceanic crust is geologically young. That is because it is also being consumed at subduction zones - the deep ocean 'trenches' where it is forced down into Earth's mantle.

When oceanic crust is forced down into the mantle at subduction zones, it heats up and begins to melt into magma. Carbonate minerals in that crust lose their carbon - it is literally cooked out of them. Magmas then transport the CO2 and other gases up through Earth's crust and if they reach the surface, volcanic eruptions occur and the CO2 and other gases leave the magma for the atmosphere.

So here you can see a long-term cycle in which carbon gets trapped in the sea-floor, subducted into the mantle, liberated into new magma and erupted again. It's a key part of Earth's Slow Carbon Cycle.

Volcanoes are also dangerous. That's why we have studied them for centuries. We have hundreds of years of observations of all sorts of eruptions, at Earth's surface and beneath the oceans. Those observations include millions of geochemical analyses of both lavas and gases.

Because of all of that data collected over so many years, we have a very good idea of the amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere by volcanic activity. According to the USGS, it is between 180 and 440 million tons a year.

In 2019, according to the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report (2022), human CO2 emissions were:

44.25 thousand million tons.

That's at least a hundred times the amount emitted by volcanoes. Case dismissed.

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!

Further details

Beneath the surface of the Earth, in the various rocks making up the crust and the mantle, is a huge quantity of carbon, far more than is present in the atmosphere or oceans. As well as fossil fuels (those still left in the ground) and limestones (made of calcium carbonate), there are many other compounds of carbon in combination with other chemical elements, making up a range of minerals. According to the respected mineralogy reference website mindat, there are 258 different valid carbonate minerals alone!

Some of this carbon is released in the form of carbon dioxide, through vents at volcanoes and hot springs. Volcanic emissions are an important part of the global Slow Carbon Cycle, involving the movement of carbon from rocks to the atmosphere and back on geological timescales. In this part of the Slow Carbon Cycle (fig. 1), carbonate minerals such as calcite form through the chemical reaction of sea water with the basalt making up oceanic crust. Almost all oceanic crust ends up getting subducted, whereupon it starts to melt deep in the heat of the mantle. Hydrous minerals lose their water which acts as a flux in the melting process. Carbonates get their carbon driven off by the heating. The result is copious amounts of volatile-rich magma.

Magma is buoyant relative to the dense rocks deep inside the Earth. It rises up into the crust and heads towards the surface. Some magma is trapped underground where it slowly cools and solidifies to form intrusions. Some magma reaches the surface to be erupted from volcanoes. Thus a significant amount of carbon is transferred from ocean water to ocean floor, then to the mantle, then to magma and finally to the atmosphere through volcanic degassing.

 Plate tectonics in cartoon form

Fig. 1: An endless cycle of carbon entrapment and release: plate tectonics in cartoon form. Graphic: jg.

Estimates of the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanic activity vary but are all in the low hundreds of millions of tons per annum. That's a fraction of human emissions (Fischer & Aiuppa 2020 and references therein; open access). There have been counter-claims that volcanoes, especially submarine volcanoes, produce vastly greater amounts of CO2 than these estimates. But they are not supported by any papers published by the scientists who study the subject. The USGS and other organisations have debunked such claims repeatedly, for example here and here. To continue to make the claims is tiresome.

The burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use results in the emission into the atmosphere of approximately 44.25 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year worldwide (2019 figures, taken from IPCC AR6, WG III Technical Summary 2022). Human emissions numbers are in the region of two orders of magnitude greater than estimated volcanic CO2 fluxes.

Our knowledge of volcanic CO2 discharges would have to be shown to be very mistaken before volcanic CO2 discharges could be considered anything but a bit player in the current picture. They have done nothing to contribute to the recent changes observed in the concentration of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere. In the Slow Carbon cycle, volcanic outgassing is only part of the picture. There are also the ways in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and oceans. If fossil fuel burning was not happening, the Slow Carbon Cycle would be in balance. Instead we've chucked a great big wrench into its gears.

Some people like classic graphs, others prefer alternative ways of illustrating a point. Here's the graph (fig. 2):

Human emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels and cement

Fig. 2: Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, human emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and cement production (green line) have risen to more than 35 billion metric tons per year, while volcanoes (purple line) produce less than 1 billion metric tons annually. NOAA graph, based on data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) at the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Burton et al. (2013).

And here's a cartoon version (fig. 3):

 Human and volcanic CO2 emissions

Fig. 3: Another way of expressing the difference between current volcanic and human annual CO2 emissions (as of 2022). Graphic: jg.

Volcanoes can - and do - influence the global climate over time periods of a few years. This is occasionally achieved through the injection of sulfate aerosols into the high reaches of the atmosphere during the very large volcanic eruptions that occur sporadically each century. When such eruptions occur, such as the 1991 example of Mount Pinatubu, a short-lived cooling may be expected and did indeed happen. The aerosols are a cooling agent. So occasional volcanic climate forcing mostly has the opposite sign to global warming.

An exception to this general rule, however, was the cataclysmic January 2022 eruption of the undersea volcano Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha'apai. The explosion, destroying most of an island, was caused by the sudden interaction of a magma chamber with a vast amount of seawater. It was detected worldwide and the eruption plume shot higher into the atmosphere than any other recorded. The chemistry of the plume was unusual in that water vapour was far more abundant than sulfate. Loading the regional stratosphere with around 150 million tons of water vapour, the eruption is considered to be a rare example of a volcano causing short-term warming, although the amount represents a small addition to the much greater warming caused by human emissions (e.g. Sellitto et al. 2022).

Over geological time, even more intense volcanism has occurred - sometimes on a vast scale compared to anything humans have ever witnessed. Such 'Large Igneous Province' eruptions have even been linked to mass-extinctions, such as that at the end of the Permian period 250 million years ago. So in the absence of humans and their fossil fuel burning, volcanic activity and its carbon emissions have certainly had a hand in driving climate fluctuations on Earth. At times such events have proved disastrous. It's just that today is not one such time. This time, it's mostly down to us.

Last updated on 10 September 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Further reading

Tamino has posted two examinations of the "volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans" argument by looking at the impact of the 1991 Pinutabo eruption on CO2 levels and the impact of past super volcanoes on the CO2 record.

The Global Volcanism Program have a list of all "most noteworthy" volcanoes - with for example a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) greater than 5 over the past 10,000 years.

Myth Deconstruction

Related resource: Myth Deconstruction as animated GIF

MD Volcano

Please check the related blog post for background information about this graphics resource.

Denial101x video

Here is the relevant lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial


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Comments 176 to 200 out of 308:

  1. Patrick You might find this interesting: Rift Zones: New Understanding Of Incredible Forces, Oil And Gas Reserves Beneath The Earth’s Surface ScienceDaily (Feb. 12, 2009)
  2. Re 176 - that was interesting. Although I already had some sense that a number of faults north of and around India, including some extensional ones, were a consequence of the India-Asia collision. Re 175 - supposing that undersea volcanism were proportional to the number of VEI>=4 eruptions apparent from the surface, and using 16 per 26 years as a baseline: 1970 - 1944 = 26 2006 - 1970 = 36 16/26 ~= 0.615 36/26 ~= 0.722 0.722/0.615 ~= 1.17 A 17 % increase in VEI>=4 eruptions. A 17% increase in submarine eruptions would be some very small fraction of total geothermal heating, having a heating effect much much less than 0.1 W/m2.
  3. correction: 26/36 ~= 0.722
  4. Patrick Look beyond the eruptions. Why are there eruptions and what do they implicate? A recent article states "Magma chockfull of silica is viscous (think warm, gooey taffy) and traps lots of gases." This indicates that the magma is mixing with subducted sea bottom. All of these volcanos near coasts are there because of the subduction. An increase of volcanic eruptions are symptons of tectonic plate movement and that is the "thermostat" that I already referenced. It's not a slowed process, it's a chaotic process that is now happening but was induced by the 1976 planetary alignment. Keep in mind that planetary alignments of that nature are extremely rare and take several years to line up fully and several more to unalign. The combined pull of the planets beyond our orbit is greatly underestimated because of the lack of understanding of gravity. If you can't see this you can't follow my reasoning for climate changes.
  5. ""Magma chockfull of silica is viscous (think warm, gooey taffy) and traps lots of gases." " Yes, it is. But geologic emissions are only roughly 2 or 3 percent of anthropogenic emissions and are roughly balanced by the chemical weathering sink. ------------- "This indicates that the magma is mixing with subducted sea bottom." The magma comes from subducting crust and some of the overlying crust. Crust is enriched in silica relative to the mantle, so yes, subduction zone volcanism tends to be more silica rich (and produce less mafic and more felsic igneous rocks) than mid-ocean ridge magma. Hot spot volcanism magma comes from the mantle but penetrates overlying crust, as I understand it - well it's quite fluid (and produces basalt, I think) at Hawaii, but can be quite viscous (and typically felsic) at Yellowstone - my guess is the difference in overlying crust composition is the big factor. Continental crust is more felsic and less mafic than oceanic crust; the mantle is ultramafic. Igneous rocks ----------- felsic --------------- mafic ----| ultramafic intrusive: granite. grano-diorite diorite. gabbro | peridotite extrusive: rhyolite dacite....... andesite basalt | komatiite There are also a class of igneous rocks which are less rich in silica but not mafic; they contain feldspathoids. Chemically, feldspathoid + quartz = feldspar; igneous rocks can contain feldspathoids and feldspar, feldspar, or quartz and feldspar, but not quartz and feldspathoids at the same time because they would have reacted in a molten state to produce feldspar. Of course, during the crystalization process, some crystal grains can form and then (if/when big enough to prevent diffusion toward equilbrium composition) become out-of equilbrium with the composition of the melt... ----------------- "Keep in mind that planetary alignments of that nature are extremely rare and take several years to line up fully and several more to unalign." How rare is rare? "The combined pull of the planets beyond our orbit is greatly underestimated because of the lack of understanding of gravity." If you're thinking of the invocation of dark matter to explain the rate of revolution around the galactic center at great distances, you should know that doesn't apply to planetary orbits around a star. If it did, Pluto would be orbiting faster. If you're thinking of 'reduced mass' instead of actual masses, that's important for objects with masses similar to each other, but with the planets all orbiting the sun, and the sun's mass over 1000 times that of the next most massive body involved, 'reduced mass' is a very minor issue for planetary orbits. It plays a bigger role in the Earth and moon's orbits about their common barycenter, but it's still a relatively small effect, furthermore, we do understand it. Relativistic effects are also relatively minor for the solar system, although it might be necessary to take them into account for Milankovitch-like cycles of various planetary orbits (it makes a contribution to perihelion advance) - where incremental changes build up after many revolutions. This is understood. If you're thinking of the lack of theory that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics - that's a nonissue for actually using general relativity and it's approximation, Newtonian gravity, for planetary orbits and even dust-particle orbits, charged particle orbits, etc. If you're thinking of radiation pressure, that's understood as well.
  6. The composition of subduction-zone magma could/would also be affected by any subducted sediments (though some of that forms an accretionary prism that is not subducted) and also by alteration of the upper oceanic crust by water (hydrothermal vents near the mid-oceanic ridges).
  7. Patrick 027 Re: Quietman - where in the above comments were your friend's and chris's comments about thermodynamics? It was posted in a different thread. See comment 35 here:. Is Antarctic ice melting or growing? ps I had to stop posting in the thread where you asked. Just to open it takes a couple of minutes now (it's too long). pps This thread is also becoming a problem but not as bad.
  8. Patrick Re: "furthermore, we do understand it." I don't think so. When we identify the nature of gravity we will understand it. Thus far we only understand it's effects and that not completely. What we have is a "working knowledge" of gravity. The same as we have a "working knowledge" of climate. We really do not have all the answers yet.
  9. ps When making models using math it is nest to keep in mind the statements that Einstein and Tesla made on the subject.
  10. "Tesla was critical of Einstein's relativity work, calling it: “ ...[a] magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king ... its exponents are brilliant men but they are metaphysicists rather than scientists ...[76] " - Wikipedia I don't remember Einstein's exact words about math versus experiment, but they essentially agreed with what Tesla said about his math (just not about his own theory). LOL
  11. Einstein constructed a theory based on the concept that the speed of light should be observed to be the same in any reference frame, and that the physics within a room sitting on the Earth; held up by the force of supporting material by the ~ 9.81 m/s2 acceleration of gravity, should be equilavent to the physics in the reference frame that is being accelerated at 9.81 m/s2 upward with no gravitational field actiing on it. As far as I know, it was a bit of an intuitive leap, but there were reasons for thinking that these conditions might be true. For the first part, the speed of light was predicted by some equations (Maxwell) that involve two constants - permittivity (related to electric fields) and permeability (related to magnetic fields). See: These values can vary as material properties, but have values in 'free space' as well. If space is a material... well...; but anyway, will these material properties change if the materials move? It's concievable but ... Well, there are two immediately apparent options: Physics varies among inertial reference frames, suggesting there is a fundamental inertial reference frame (the only one in which the speed of light appears the same in all directions?), perhaps the one which follows the motion of space itself? - OR - The speed of light is the same in all reference frames; physics is the same in all inertial reference frames; space and time can be warped. Anyway, Einstein's theory yeilded predictions; tests have been made (E=mc^2 (actually, that's a special case of E^2 = m^2*c^4 + p^2*c^2, I think), gravitational lensing, the relativistic correction to Newtonian-based calculation of the perihelion advance of Mercury (non-relativistic contributions come from planetary interactions), red-shift due to the expanding universe (actually that may be relativity as evidence of expansion rather than the other way around?) - due to lengthening wavelengths with the expansion of space as the photons are travelling - this is distinct from red shift due to relative motion, which I believe is also altered by relativity relative to the equation for the doppler shifting of sound waves, for example - there is also relativistic gravitational red shift, gravitational distortion of time... so far the theory has not falsified. I wonder if Tesla's opinion about relativity is analogous to Einstein's opinion about quantum mechanics. Anyway, where in the scales involved of the solar system and the Earth has General Relativity - or Newtonian approximations, where applicable - been violated? If there is an error it is too small to be detected yet. Which says something about whether we need be concerned with regards to Milankovitch cycles, tides, etc. --- "See comment 35 here" ... "I had to stop posting in the thread where you asked. Just to open it takes a couple of minutes now (it's too long)." I don't know about your computer or internet connection, but what I would do is open up multiple windows (or tabs, if you have that option) so that I can do one thing while waiting for another... I'm going to keep posting at the other site; maybe if you only stop by once every few days...
  12. ""See comment 35 here"" - I also meant to say thanks for that.
  13. Patrick Will do.
  14. Why Is The Nyiragongo Volcano Lava Different From Others? Mar 13 2009
  15. Before I read that, I'm going to take a wild guess - that this is a volcano in northeastern Africa that produces lava with a very low melting point - it can be picked up with a spoon; the magma is produced by geological heating of some kind of sedimentary rocks with chemistry that is not very similar to bulk crustal compositions - although it might not be all that dissimilar from other sedimentary rocks (?) but it is unusual, perhaps, for such a molten mixture to not mix in with a much greater amount of magma of more common composition. Now I'll see if I'm on the right track...
  16. ... I was not. This volcano, according to the article, is being fed directly by a mantle plume. A growing plume - or at least one which is still growing in it's surficial manifestations. A mantle plume doesn't just happen overnight. This is all very interesting but has no bearing on climate changes over the last century, millenium, the Holocene, ... etc.
  17. Quietman:"What we have is a "working knowledge" of gravity." That applies also to evolution, the standard model, gene regulation, and everything in between. It's all a matter of how refined the working knowledge is and how precise the working can be. We don't really know what an electron is. We have a theory that we name that, we know how that theoretical unit behaves in a range of conditions, how it interacts with other theoretical units. We have an idea of subunits composing it, to the extent that we have broken it down as far as the energy levels required have been reached, but there may still be other levels waiting to be discovered. As good as that is, it's still only a "working" knowledge. Science does not provide absolute certainty or exhaustive knowledge, except perhaps at the most basic levels of a field.
  18. Philippe Exactly, but we understand more about some things than others. We understand less about gravity than magnetism or electricity for instance. So we can be more certain about the things that we have a better understanding of. Example, we have a much better understanding of neandertal than australopithecus and therefore can draw better conclusions about the former than we can about the latter.
  19. "but we understand more about some things than others. We understand less about gravity than magnetism or electricity for instance." In what ways, exactly? Surely, quantum gravity and dark matter, dark energy, etc, are not well understood, whereas QED works out quite well, so far as I know (though there will ultimately some underpinning that is not yet understood thoroughly and that is likely to be related to quantum gravity, etc. - for example, string theory). But what difference does that make to gravitational interactions among the Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, dust particles, ions, etc, of the Solar System? Meanwhile, there is a complexity to how the solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field, geomagnetic field, and the ionosphere interact, and how that might interact with the fluid mechanics of the atmosphere, and I don't see a good reason to expect this plays a big role in most climate changes.
  20. Patrick It is because we tend to look at the last steps in a process rather than the initial steps. I read recently how ENSO is caused bt trade winds. It's the same type of argument as CO2 causing warming. We look at the last step rather than the root cause. Trade winds are caused by ENSO's root cause, vulcanism/tectonics, not he other way around. I don't know about Australia but here in the U.S. education took a nose dive with JFK. I read articles and papers about "new" discoveries that I was taught in high school. So what do we do? We treat symptoms to cover up a problem and ignore root cause entirely. So what causes the cyclic natiure of tectonics? Gravity. The relationship of the Earth to other objects with gravity. Our math on this is wrong because we can't even determine what gravity is. By our current math bothing happened in 1976 but by observation of the real world it did. It initiated a change in plate tectonics. The change in spreading rates and subduction is proof positive. Compounding the problem is that the corruption is at an all time high. Accordiing to his former boss, Hansen would have been fired for incompetance if he did not have Gore's support. The communist/socialist supporters of the radicals are undermining us with their new "green" cover for their "red" agenda, trying to turn people against capitalism.
  21. "Trade winds are caused by ENSO's root cause, vulcanism/tectonics, not he other way around. " ENSO is a mode of internal variability that can be excited by external bumps but arises in computer models that do not use any submarine volcanic forcing. Changes in trade winds are both cause and effect - they are part of the package. You've never supplied evidence or supporting theory for your proposed mechanism of gravity driving changes in plate tectonics on such a time scale and with such subtle effects as the planet-caused tides on other planets. The theory of CO2-greenhouse effect is much much much much much much much much much better supported by reason and data. Remind me again what happenned in 1976? I remember you posted something about that... "Accordiing to his former boss, Hansen would have been fired for incompetance if he did not have Gore's support." Who was his former boss? And who would have been and not have been fired except for Bush/Cheney et al? "The communist/socialist supporters of the radicals are undermining us with their new "green" cover for their "red" agenda, trying to turn people against capitalism." You've flattered me in the past; now you've irked me. But I don't care about that. The obvious all-encompassing solutions to the problem of cliamte-changing emissions has at its core a fossil fuel sales tax and some similar measures regarding deforestation, cement production, etc. (See some of my comments here: (in particular, comments 387 and 388 - feel free to skip over 'PART II' - that's basically a compression of 50 pages of material into one paragraph). A true communist might not go for such a plan - or maybe s/he would - I really don't care either way. Environmentalists may be somewhat divided about specific policies.
  22. Remind me again what happenned in 1976? I remember you posted something about that... An extremely rare procession of the planets in perfect alignment. Predictions made in the early 1970s were based on the gravitational effects on the earth. But nothing major happened in 1976 as expected. They did not realize that something did happen but it was a delayed reaction which started before the full alignment and continued after. This is because the alignment with the gas giants was earlier by a few years and continued a few years after, stressing the earth with each annual alignment, small tug after small tug. It altered the plates, but as you are aware, earthquakes and volcanos are not immediate manidfestations, pressure had to build up first. Hence the increase in earthquakes, volcanos, and the record El Ninos. If El Nino is not caused by tectonics how do you explain the signal eruption at every El Nino?
  23. Or in other words, how exactly does a trade wind cause a volcanic eruption? Is 2+2 still 4 or do we go with the IPCC result of 5?
  24. IPCC and a whole lot'o other people: (2.0 +/- 0.5)*(1.0 +/- 0.1)+(2.0 +/- 0.2) + x = x + 4.05 +/- 0.9 ~= 4.0 +0.95/-0.85 if |x| << 4.05 and |x| << 0.85 (except that if the +/- are 90 % confidence intervals, the limiting values do not add and multiply directly to give the other limiting values (because the probability of two values being simultaneously outside their 90 % confidence interval is smaller than either one in isolation, etc.) Your argument: 45 +/- 10 + 0.001*? has resulted in 50, therefore 0.001 is HUGE! (What signal eruptions? 1. Without any reason to expect a strong causal link, a once-off correlation is not sufficient evidence for much of anything - you need a robust, persistent, statistically significant correlation (As with the CO2 - ice age correlations; wherein theory aids in analysis of the actual causal links). 2a. When looking for a correlation, it is not good to just define a broad range of frequencies and search for whatever falls into that portion of the spectrum and automatically conclude that component is correlated to some central frequency. 2b. Looking at a class of events that are relatively common, one can expect to find coincidental correlations with some other such events. One must ask - is this correlation the kind that would happen without actual physical relationship, direct or otherwise?
  25. Signal eruptions are in the Andes, in Chile, over the subducted pacific seabed. I posted a link to the Live Science article in this thread (somewhere). It's OUR signal of El Nino because it's symptomatic of the activation of the tectonic process. We THOUGHT thst plate movement was a slow constant process. It is not. Mountain building occurs in fits and spurts (another link I had posted) because plate tectonics are not a constant. Activity increases on a cyclic basis, not just ENSO but all over the planet. External forces such as lunar tides in the mantle and below are compounded by major alignments but since gravity is a weak force it is not noticed by us unless we look at the symptoms. This is what keeps our planet habitable.

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