Iceland and the Volcano-Greenhouse Theory

19 April 2010


From Ulrich Latzenhofer's photostream on Flickr.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland, and the disruption of air traffic across Europe, is a lesson in the power of vulcanism. The astonishing images coming out of Iceland (such as the one I used from from Ulrich Latzenhofer’s photostream on Flickr) are matched by the dramatic stories of Icelandic farmers attempting to save their livestock.

Iceland has a long history of vulcanism, and has made the best of a dangerous situation by drawing on its proximity to molten magma for heat and electricity (from geothermal sources), but the eruption shows how quickly these sources of energy can turn into a mortal danger. Thick deposits of ash have rendered large areas of the countryside uninhabitable by livestock. The BBC reported that, “Areas south of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano have been caked in a layer of grey ash some 10cm (four inches) thick. Ponds have turned into pools of cement-like mud and geese have had trouble flying because their wings are heavy with ash, media reports say.”

The disruption caused by the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano can be a help to our imagination in coming to a concrete realization of the power of mass vulcanism. With these images of Iceland in mind, imagine either a supervolcano (“…a volcano capable of producing a super volcanic eruption, which is a volcanic eruption with ejecta greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers… thousands of times larger than most historic volcanic eruptions…”) or hundreds if not thousands of volcanoes erupting in an episode of massive vulcanism. In this way, our actual experience (aided by imagination) can be enlisted in our understanding of events that dwarf anything we will experience.

The theory of dinosaur extinction most familiar in the popular press is that of the K-T impact extinction theory, such that the impact that caused the Chicxulub crater (“…an ancient impact crater buried underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico…”), and climate changes caused by this massive impact, was the primary cause of the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. But this is not the only contending theory for the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. There is also the K-T Deccan Traps volcanism-induced carbon cycle perturbation extinction theory, called the Volcano-Greenhouse theory by its originator, Dewey McLean.

While more people know about the K-T impact extinction theory, both theories are plausible and have impressive evidence for them. It may be that the K-T impact theory is better known for the reason that contemporary popular culture has produced several major Hollywood films about extraterrestrial impacts, and that these dramatizations have a not-inconsiderable influence upon the popular imagination. The power of nature revealed over the past week in Iceland is a good opportunity to educate our imagination more broadly, for an educated imagination opens possibilities of thought otherwise foreclosed simply for lack of the ability of conceive alternatives.

I made a somewhat similar argument in Life in the Holocene Epoch regarding the immediate intuitive impact of a photograph of Britain, turned entirely white by ice and snow, during the past difficult winter. The Eyjafjallajoekull volcano, like the photograph of a snowbound Britain, provide ample stimulation for the a priori imagination, thus, “bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity.” (according to Collingwood)

In this case, the continuity given is the continuity of natural history rather than human history, as well as the continuity of scientific theory and ordinary experience. Any way that we can close these gaps (i.e., the gaps between scientific theory of ordinary experience) we achieve a more comprehensive and complete understanding of the world. In this particular instance, in relation to theories of the K-T mass extinction event, we get not just an understanding, but an intuitive feeling, a direct experience of the power of nature and the events of natural history, that makes theorizing and understanding possible. From such a perspective we are better prepared to appreciate the different theories of mass extinction, as well as the scientific possibilities that underlie these theories.

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Iceland, source of Skaldic literature

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One Response to “Iceland and the Volcano-Greenhouse Theory”

  1. D. E. Reddick said

    There is a current thread about the apparent political reaction to the Icelandic volcano eruption over at New Wars. I dropped a link to this post into that thread as it seemed pertinent to that discussion – in a more expansive way.

    Since, I’ve also added a set of links to the “Year Without A Summer” (1816) which followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora. It’s not likely that the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano eruption will lead to an 1816-like consequence – but, what if…

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