For millions of years, mankind has feared Volcanoes for the immense power and destruction that results from a volcanic eruption. The citizens of Pompeii thought that gods dwelt in the mountain of Vesuvius and that volcanic activity was actually the result of the gods being displeased with the people, but even they could not have imagined the level of total annihilation following its 79 A.D. eruption. While the people of history were right to guard against the immediate dangers of volcanic eruptions, very few of them could have imagined the modern threat presented by active volcanoes: Long term and far-reaching climate change. While it’s clear that the world around us is changing and creating alterations in our climate, most people blame the most obvious suspect – gasoline-powered transportation – instead of looking at the role played by natural events such as volcanic activity in the global warming trend.

If a random sampling of people were asked for the primary threat posed by volcanoes, most would likely say the threat of harm from molten lava and certainly the people of Pompeii would agree with them. Thanks to modern technology, however, it is now possible to limit the damage that can be done by lava, at least in terms of human lives, which makes it second fiddle to the true culprit. The truth is that the far more serious danger of volcanic eruptions is the billions of microscopic particles that are released into the atmosphere. During an eruption, a unique combination of substances is forced out through the volcano’s vent. This material consists of magma, multiple gases, and tephra, which is made up of ash and droplets of lava that cool in mid-air, known as volcanic bombs or blocks. The ash, which measures two millimeters or less, is propelled into the air and then begins to disperse according to its density. In terms of the earth’s climate, reliable evidence has been proven to demonstrate that volcanic eruptions create a significant impact on air quality and other climate indicators both immediately following the event as well as weeks and even months later. The 2010 eruption of one of Iceland’s more active volcanoes, Eyjafjallaj√∂kull, not only halted air travel over most of Europe for almost a week but also propelled an unprecedented amount of ash into the atmosphere that was carried over most of the European and western Asian continents. These kinds of highly concentrated levels of ash act as insulation to prevent heat loss, which means the atmosphere is warmer than it should be, leading to a host of ecological problems. In addition, when ash settles out of the atmosphere and onto the ground or in water, it has unbalanced levels of chemicals like fluoride, which is absorbed into the water supply and creates yet more pollution and further climate change.

While the human race should and does treat volcanoes with appropriate caution, it’s time to wake up and realize that short term risk is not the only danger of volcanic activity. It is the long term effects of pollution and climate change that we should fear the most and actively work to correct in order to limit the impact of eruptions. With education and commitment to understanding, reducing the negative effects of volcanic events can be within our reach.