Volcano revealed as Europe’s worst polluter

The Bardarbunga volcano spewing lava and smoke in southeast Iceland in September 2014. Picture: Getty
The Bardarbunga volcano spewing lava and smoke in southeast Iceland in September 2014. Picture: Getty
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A HUGE volcanic eruption in Iceland last year emitted treble the amount of toxic gas than Europe’s industries combined, Scottish scientists have revealed.

Discharge of lava from the Bárðarbunga volcano released a huge mass of up to 120,000 tonnes per day of sulphur dioxide gas, which can cause acid rain and respiratory problems.

Dr Stevenson of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences

Dr Stevenson of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences

The eruption was the biggest in Iceland for more than 200 years, releasing a river of lava across northern Iceland, and lasted for six months.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh hope their findings will advance understanding of how such eruptions can affect air quality in the UK.

The findings reveal how fast such a gas cloud is travelling and in what direction it is heading.

This means that a range of people and organisations including hospitals and those with respiratory problems, tourists, businesses and those arranging large sporting events can have advance warning of potential problems, especially for possible bigger volcanic eruptions in the future.

The gas cloud from Bárðarbunga took 24-48 hours to reach Scotland last September but gas levels did not cause major problems.

Dr John Stevenson, of the university’s school of geosciences, said that the at times Bárðarbunga was emitting much more than treble the amount of European industries.

“The treble figure is an average. At times it was up to eight or nine times the amount emitted by all European industry.

In fact, new legislation meant that European industries had to cut down their emissions in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Dr Stevenson said that due to wind direction volcanoes most likely to affect Scotland would be the 30 on Iceland rather than those further afield such as Mount Etna on Sicily.

“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.”

In April 2010 volcanic ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano caused air chaos for months.

Dr Anja Schmidt from the school of earth and environment at the University of Leeds, who led the study, said: “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.

“Six months later, when the eruption ended, it had produced enough lava to cover an area the size of Manhattan.

“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.”

As well as being given off by volcanoes, sulphur dioxide is 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.

The research project, which also included teams from a number of European universities 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.

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.