Planes or Volcano?

Friday, April 16th, 2010

After three versions and much discussion, here’s the latest, corrected version of the answer.

Planes vs Volcano: Who's emitting the most CO2?

UPDATE 3 – 20th April – : More new info and some shame for us. According to leading geologists, Eyjafjallajoekull is emitting between “150,000 and 300,000″ tons of CO2 a day (source). Despite the attentions of the Icelandic vulcanologists and detailed research, our calculations were apparently off by a factor to 10. Many apologies for this error. The volcano *is* belching huge gobs of CO2 into the atmos. Arguably, still less than the amount that would’ve been emitted by the grounded planes. We’ve corrected the diagram. Thanks to all the commenters who helped us refine and correct our calcs.

UPDATE 2 – 18th April -: We’ve been sent some new figures from the Nordic Volcanological Institute of the University of Iceland (thanks Nicole!). They’ve measured the CO2:SO2 ratio as 5:1 (source). So Eyjafjallajoekull is emitting an estimated 15,000 tons of CO2 a day – twice our original estimate. We’ve updated the diagram accordingly.

UPDATE 1 – April 17th – : A few people have asked so here’s how we estimated the CO2 emissions of Eyjafjallajoekull.

We couldn’t find a direct CO2 emissions figure for the icelandic volcano but we did find an emissions figure for Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) – 3,000 tons a day (Source)

When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, it emitted 42 million tons of CO2 (source) and 17 million tons of SO2 (source). That’s a CO2-to-SO2 ratio of 2.47:1

Applying that ratio to the 3,000 tons of SO2 emitted by Eyjafjallajoekull gives us the figure of 7,412 tons of CO2 per day.

Clearly, this is a ballpark figure and it’s likely to be more complex. If any vulcanologists are passing by and would like to enhance or correct our numbers, please help yourselves to the data!

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Show Comments ( )

  • 6000

    Certainly looks better because you chose the lowest possible estimate for the volcanic CO2 emissions.
    Would have been less misleading to have taken an average at 225,000 tonnes, but that wouldn’t have made the pretty graphic look quite as good, would it?

    [Yes, we thought about that. It's one way we could've gone. The source article uses a ranged estimate of 150,000 to 300,000 tons of CO2 for the volcano. But it also uses a higher estimate of EU aviation industry figures (440K) than we do (344K). Taking the average of both gives us 225K (average of 150-300k) and aviation figures 392K (average of 344-400). 60% of 392K gives us 235K. The volcano, at 225K, still wins. David]

    • elina cullen

      hey u have nice points

  • Dalila

    Great point you have there!

  • Steve Goddard

    Even the corrected estimates are highly misleading.

    1. The volcano has been erupting for a month. Total CO2 emissions are much larger than indicated in this analysis.

    2. The 340,000 number is only for the past six days and assumes that all EU aircraft have been grounded. The outage was limited to the UK and Northern Europe. There were plenty of EU planes flying all week.

    3. Most of those travelers have already or will seek other forms of transportation, like Royal Navy warships. There is no reason to believe that a temporary shutdown of half of Europe’s airspace has had any meaningful effect on CO2 emissions.

    Your analysis is incorrect.

  • Molly

    I could be wrong (I am not a vulcanologist) but I would’ve thought that there is more reason to trust your estimate of 18/4/10, since it appears to be based on on-site sampling — whereas today’s revised estimate is based on “Assuming the composition of gas to be the same as in an earlier eruption on an adjacent volcano”.

    [Alas, the on-site sampling was done pre-eruption. D]

  • Steve

    Regardless of whether you ‘believe’ in the climate change thing, these are the kind of graphs that cripple both sides of the argument. Making a bunch of wild assumptions and pictures when YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT YOU WANT THE END RESULT TO SUGGEST is not science, nor is it helpful. Now that more accurate and agreed upon emissions numbers are filtering out, this chart will (and should) be seen as nothing but propoganda.

  • Jameson

    Another triangle of “Ash Consumption” by jet engines needs to be added to the
    computation to help balance the SO2 consumption !!

  • Jameson

    Mt Pinatubo was a catastrophic mountain explosion, continuing for many months and on a much greater scale than Mt St Helens ! This Icelandic one is a fairly standard extrusive
    eruption causing little widescale damage apart from localised ash/ejecta falls. Thus the daily CO2 output estimate is quite believable and complicated with the steam production from the overlying ice cover !

  • John

    So why is the 150,000 tonne figure used, not the 300,000 tonne one? Wouldn’t it look so good?

  • jimpeel

    Ironic how a natural, not man made, event occurs in the midst of earth Day week. What will the eco-freaks say of this?

    If we are arrogant enough to believe that we can change the climate of the entire planet, corking this minor nuisance should be a piece of cake.

  • ImranCan

    “Yep, thanks all for the latest CO2 figures from Earth scientists. It’s looking like we’ve got the figure wrong by a magnitude of 10… Pie en route to face.”

    Yes – sounds funny – but unfortunately the damage you have done can’t easily be undone ….another great example of how “made up data” will now support a flawed ideology resulting in disastrious policies which could blight the lives of billions of people. Well done,

  • ImranCan

    “Mount Pintaubo emitted 42 million tons of CO2 over a year when it erupted in 1991.”

    Yes … but the eruption lasted for 9 hours …. which would put a “daily rate” at over 100 million tonnes per day.

    I’m honestly wondering if you have learnt how to think. Please – use a little brain.

  • abc

    those people who are getting quite so hung up on the specific numbers involved here are missing the bigger picture. yes, figures are important, but even with the correction by a factor of 10, which changes the appearance of the chart above admittedly, the point that is being made here is still entirely valid. this volcano is widely seen as causing a lot of damage to the environment – largely because we can SEE the plumes spiralling up to the skies so obviously. and yet this is an irregular natural event. meanwhile, each and every day at least the equivalent is being pumped up into the atmosphere, and arguably a fair bit more, by the european aviation industry alone. add to that the figures from the US, asian and other aviation industries and the scale of the damage we are doing becomes a lot more worrying.

    don’t waste your time mocking someone because they’ve made a couple of mistakes with their calculations. the issue of CO2 emissions and climate change shouldn’t be so fixated on numbers, but on effecting a global SHIFT IN ATTITUDES AND PERCEPTIONS.

    • Matt

      That’s right. Liberals/Environmentalist want sheeple to form an opinion on global warming using their feelings and hearts, not scientific findings. Don’t look at the man behind the curtain little girl, just believe what you are being told and shown.

  • Mark Fawcett

    If your newly update source states that the volcano is producing 150,000 – 300,000 tonnes per day, why are you using the lower figure? At least use the midpoint as some vague fairness in the comparison.

    Also, I realise that your piece concentrates on aircraft vs. volcano. However, how about factoring in the increase in CO2 output from all the other modes of transport now being brought into play as alternatives to the lack of aviation?

    M’thinks your triangles will end up pretty close (if not actually larger on the right). How embarrassing if it turns out that the volcano has actually resulted in a net increase in CO2…



  • Chris Yule

    I understand that there was an increase in temperature during the flight ban caused by 9/11. Con-trails were cited as reflecting the sun’s radiation with a cooling effect. No planes, no con-trails. I only have anecdotal sources for this but it would be an interesting subject for one of your graphs, particularly if there is a similar reflection from the dust cloud…

  • Bill Hartree

    Dear informationisbeautiful,

    Having looked at the sources for your various figures I would suggest that you should revert to your estimate of 15,000 tonnes, since this is what vulcanologists have actually measured from Eyjafjallajoekull. The estimate from Colin MacPherson of 150,000 is based on the assumption that it is the same as that from a previous volcano described by the Breitbart website as being “adjacent” to Eyja f.j., whatever that might mean. Note that Macperhson is quoted as saying that the emission “would be 150,000″, not “was 150,000″, making it clear that he is speculating on the figure. Breitbart in typical journalistic fashion disregard such niceties. It may well be that in his email Macpherson suggested other figures based on different assumptions. Since they quote less than one sentence from his email we don’t know.

  • Kaarin Goodburn

    OK, but how much CO2 is being emitted by all those alternative means of transport that people are having to use instead? Interesting snippet on this on BBC World at One the other day, with Tim Harford of BBC Radio 4′s More or Less (statistics prog) having worked out in his effort to get back from Helsinki to the UK that the alternative transportation he’d use came out even/a bit worse than that from air travel.

  • iamadonut

    hate to be a party pooper, but the UN panel’s estimate in 1999 was about 3-4% of agw carbon in the atmosphere was due to global aviation. eu contribution would be less than half global number – well over 50% of aviation activity is in the usa.

    global aviation probably now contributes about 4-5%.

    this is not to exonerate aviation, but please understand the context. insulate your loft and don’t put your tv on standby.

    [full disclosure - yes, i used to be an aviation lobbyist; unlike nick clegg, i won't airbrush that out of my cv. ;-)]

  • Apie

    It would be great if you could do an infographic of the top contributors to carbon emissions and perhaps draw them according to the size of their contributions. Lightbulbs, cows, cars, planes, volcanos, forest fires etc. Given the flack you are getting for being off I cant says I will blame you for not doing it but that would be very interesting.

  • gnome

    “Also, I realise that your piece concentrates on aircraft vs. volcano. However, how about factoring in the increase in CO2 output from all the other modes of transport now being brought into play as alternatives to the lack of aviation?”

    Can’t beat mass consumerism & turist airplane euphoria ! Fu**ing brainwashed turism. Stay at home or walk. Walk.

  • Luke

    “150,000 and 300,000″ tons per day.

    Why does the image only reflect the low end of the scale? It should show both.

    Talk about bias!

  • Steve

    Yes I agree 100% with Luke. So why haven’t you taken the time to make the change in the graphic so the “normal” global-warming-is-caused-by-man knee jerk fanatics that don’t use their reasoning ability and are too lazy to read the text will at least see the visual? Can you guys for once start being honest? Wasn’t last December’s revelation of what a bunch of lying power hungry control-freaks you “climate change” types are do anything to make you start operating with a shred of integrity? I mean, whats it going to take? Al Gore to finally admit that “hey, it is a big hoax and thank you very much for the 150 million I made off this bogus deal suckers!”

    @Luke said:

    “150,000 and 300,000″ tons per day.

    Why does the image only reflect the low end of the scale? It should show both.

    Talk about bias!”

  • David Le Page

    Whatever the relative balance of CO2 emissions, the graph demonstrates the enormous amount of CO2 being produced by just one small portion of human activity in Europe.

    We already know that volcanic eruptions/emissions affect weather.

    This graph shows us that human activity produces emissions on a comparable scale.

    But human emissions are continuous and growing.

  • David

    All well and good but the article fails to mention that there are at least 10 volcanoes around the world actively erupting in any given day. So the C02 daily contribution from volcanic activity is at least 8-10 times greater than is porported here, again giving suspicion to claims of human-centric “global warming”.

    [Total yearly contribution of volcanoes worldwide = 180 million tons
    Total contribution of aviation worldwide = 627 million tons.
    Please see spreadsheet for sources:


  • Peter Orlov

    As previously pointed out, your diagram STILL says “15,000″….

    [I think this is a browser caching problem. Your browser is still serving up a stored, older version of the image. If you hold down 'shift' and reload the page, it should reveal the new version. Thanks! David]

  • Matt Mellen

    Climate sceptic!? You do the maths…

    Whatever your ideological stand point you need a healthy atmosphere to breathe. The people who are slowing down and hampering global efforts to preserve our atmosphere fit into 3 different categories…

  • Robin

    You could also include what benefit the planes does contra the volcano and see if the volcano still “looks like be our friend”. You could also see what impact the planes has contra the volcano on the Icelandic people who already has taken one of the worst blows form the economic crises. Would you still like the volcano?

  • Brian H

    Since CO2 is entirely benign, we should celebrate the volcano’s contribution to combatting the CO2 famine which has resulted from millions of years of assiduous sequestration by diotoms, corals, and other limestone-makers. Current levels are tied for the lowest in geological history.

  • Marko

    Ummm . . . water vapor? Much more potent than CO2 as a green house gas, massively emitted by volcanoes, especially ones under glaciers? Has anyone thought about that?

  • David

    jimpeel, it’s not arrogant to think we can change the composition of the atmosphere. Actually we’re not the first organisms to do so. Tiny cianobacteria did it first (and in a much larger scale than us) so why wouldn’t be able to do it?
    Anyway I agree this diagram is completely biased. It’s using the lower figure just so that it agrees with their point and not taking into account other data like Mark Fawcett pointed out.

  • rebekah

    I noticed that you’re using the unit “ton” whereas the scientists you’ve cited use the unit “tonne.” You should specify that the “ton” you’re referring to is technically a “metric ton.”

  • eddie

    According to the actual geologists report;ökull+2010.pdf

    The 15,000 tonnes/day figure is correct. This was from sampling the fissure eruptions on 1st and 2nd April, before the sub-glacial phase that led to the ashpocalypse. Presumable adding the glacier would affect the amount of ash but not the gas composition?

    It’s the breitbart sums that are wrong. How surprising…

  • Jim Mueller

    Do note that your source said “between 150,000 and 300,000 tons” each day. The image only shows the lower end of the estimate. If the upper end turns out to be more accurate, then there’s only a 44,000 tons difference between the European aviation industry and the volcano.

    It would be more accurate to show two triangles for the volcano. One at 150,000 tons per day and one (larger, maybe lighter coloring) at 300,000 tons per day to show the range of the estimate.

  • Coco

    abc thinks that numbers aren’t important but they do give credibility, which you have not earned.
    Worldwide CO2 emission is 28,431,741,000 tons (
    Aviation represents around 3% of this emission.
    So daily emission of CO2 for aviation industry is 2,336,855.
    “According to leading geologists, Eyjafjallajoekull is emitting between “150,000 and 300,000″ tons of CO2 a day”. This is vague. If the website that gave this information is as reliable as yours… I’ve been searching the web and no specialist has pretended to be able to measure Eyjafjallajokull’s CO2 emissions…
    However Morner & Etiope (2002) estimated that volcanism releases 300 Mt/year worldwide.
    That’s 821,918 tons/ day.
    I am not saying that my numbers are right as it’s just a big controversy but if you can’t get reliable numbers, don’t produce graphs.

  • Alan M

    What about the increase in CO2 caused by increased usage by other forms of transport to stand in for air travel. While only a portion of the ‘lost’ flights might have been transferred to ground transport, it still needs to be considered. These situations are always much more complex than a red triangle and a black triangle on a graph. For example, several hundred extra coaches were sent out to get people home; there were extra trains, cars, taxis and ferries out and about.

    What about supermarkets finding alternative sources of food, flowers etc to replace lost produce from further afield? How do all the many extra flights after the closure of air space was lifted affect the equation?

  • MikeDo

    … our figure was off by a factor of 10 … not a big deal … the sea level rising was off by a factor of 100 in Al Gore’s fictional movie … what’s a few decimal places…

    When all is said and done, people are defending man-made global warming because they want to feel good about themselves for fighting something they can affect… man’s behavior… gives them a sense of power… They can’t fight volcanoes…

    Has to do with Human need to control something… has little to do with doing the right thing…

    what a shame

  • James Splayd

    I’d love to see a version of this in comparison to how much CO2 is emitted from the oil spill, and the thousands of gallons that are being burned off as opposed to its intended use…

  • François Dejean

    Hello – nice website!
    Please find some corrections based on the official 2009 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe (on 2007 emissions) published in June 2009 by the European Environment Agency (EEA). Considering only CO2 emissions and including the contribution of international aviation (usually excluded from national totals because not covered by the Kyoto Protocol):
    - EU CO2 emissions from aviation = 159 554 759 tonnes CO2 = 437 136 tonnes CO2 per day
    So: saved emissions from cancelled flights (60% of EU aviation) = 262 282 tonnes CO2
    I would therefore suggest changing the data of the two triangles of your chart on aviation emissions:
    437 136 instead of 344 109 tonnes CO2)
    262 282 instead of 206 465 tonnes CO2
    (rounding would also be fine due to the uncertainty of the numbers!)

    For additional data provided in your file:
    - UK CO2 emissions from aviation = 36 938 637 tonnes CO2 = 101 202 tonnes CO2 per day
    - UK total CO2 emissions = 578 183 201 tonnes CO2 = 1 584 064 tonnes CO2 per day
    - EU total CO2 emissions = 4 324 017 737 tonnes CO2 = 11 846 624 tonnes CO2 per day

    Source: 2009 EC GHG inventory report (
    All data directly accessible on EEA GHG data viewer:

  • François Dejean

    Apologies, in my post above (cf. bottom: UK total CO2 emissions and EU total CO2 emissions) I omitted emissions from international maritime transport (which are also excluded from the Kyoto Protocol). Therefore it should read:
    - UK total CO2 emissions = 585 094 775 tonnes CO2 = 1 602 999 tonnes CO2 per day
    - EU total CO2 emissions = 4 497 516 783 tonnes CO2 = 12 321 964 tonnes CO2 per day
    Note again that this is data for year 2007 and only for CO2 – data for other greenhouse gas emissions is also available on EEA website
    Sorry for the confusion

  • john b

    If you think that the airplanes produce more than the volcano, you don’t have any common sense. just look at the plums! They can be seen from space. Don’t listen to any bull that says the industrialized world produces more co2 and particulates than any three volcanoes. It is easy to just see that this volcano is a far more productive polluter than any country. OPEN YOUR EYES!

  • Rod Potts

    First, your original estimates were “only” off by a FACTOR OF TEN. Then, you use the lowest estimate (150,000 tons) of CO2 I can find anywhere, instead of the EEA’s 440,000 tons average.

    I’m glad you’re not in the accounting business!

  • Shawn

    I think it’s funny to see people compare ONE (not so big) volcano to such a large aviation market and think it proves something… WOW! And then someone posts a chart from Google with “all the active volcanos” and compares those. How many volcanos do you think are under water? How many do you think are almost constantly erupting? Or do those not count because they haven’t filled out a census form? For humans to even THINK they could have as much impact on something so solid and powerful (the earth) to me is laughable…

    • Gonçalo Aguiar

      You cannot denny that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere isn’t rising.

  • Globalwarmingishomo

    Global Warming is Immoral durrr

  • Matt

    Environmentalist want people to form an opinion based on feelings, not scientific findings so don’t worry about those skewed numbers. And, don’t look at the man behind that curtain either, just listen to what I say and show you.

  • liaqat

    even google data centers emit more carbon dioxide then volcanoes :P

  • maurers

    Has to do with Human need to control something ://

  • CO22

    How about vo2? :)
    We have new volcano in action.

  • Jane

    Geez, that’s unbeilaevlbe. Kudos and such.

  • Chris

    The impact of this volcano on carbon dioxide was far more than the piddling amounts released by the volcano or the equally ppiddling amounts saved by people driving around Europe instead of flying. Take a look at the carbon dioxide measurements from Mauna Loa . In June, July and August 2010 carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped by 2.40 parts per million. Carbon dioxide usually drops during the Northern Hemisphere growing season – but the average drop over the past 30 years was only 1.66 parts per million. The incremental 0.76 ppm was most likely due to the volcanic ash fertilising the oceans and increasing ocean biomass. A drop of 0.77 ppm is equivalent to 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Mt Pinatubo had a similar but larger effect. If we had a few more volcanoes like this, we would be back in the ice ages.


    We are heading towards a huge and catastrophic Ice age because of intentional geo-engineering applications with aerosols that have sprayed into the atmosphere on a global level…..look up in the sky…notice the extreme weather changes…floods …droughts…winter storms in places and times that are out of season!
    Global Warming is a Lie!!!!