114th US Congress May Need Sense of Scale for Global Warming

Common sense is the realized sense of proportion
— Mahatma Gandhi

"I come from a state where we see a warming. We're seeing it with increased water temperatures; we're seeing it with ice that is thinner; we're seeing it with migratory patterns that are changing," Senator Lisa Murkowski said on her recent re-election night. "So I look at this and I say this is something that we must address."

Being that Senator Murkowski is the ranking member of the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, we should be encouraged to take that as good news for global warming.   With climate change being on the radar of the anticipated next chair of the Energy committee, it seems reasonable to look forward to long-needed congressional action on global warming.

On August 31st, 2014, the Bardarbunga Volcano located 219 km Northeast of Reykjavik erupted for the first time since 1910.   Volcanic activity continued well into November, making it a noteworthy natural event.  The eruption, in fact, is so noteworthy that it made it into Senator Murkowski’s election night dialogue: "The emissions that are being put in the air by that volcano are a thousand years' worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles, all of the manufacturing in Europe".  Unfortunately, the proportion here is off a bit.

To be certain, the activity at Bardarbunga this year is significant.  It already now counts as the largest on Iceland in over 100 years” according to Volcano Discovery.   Volcano’s do produce a significant amount of greenhouse gas, roughly 200 million metric tons annually.  In fact, according to one of the agency’s overseen by Senator Murkowski, the Department of Energy states “The primary source of carbon to the atmosphere [prior to the industrial age] was volcanoes”.

On average, there is a volcanic eruption somewhere on Earth every week.  So, the average volcanic eruption releases approximately 3.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas.  That translates into an atmospheric volume of just under 8 billion cubic feet; or roughly a swath of the Earth’s troposphere with roughly the footprint of a city block.

Let’s compare that to man made emissions.  Rather than comparing it to European emissions as Senator Murkowski did, we’ll create comparisons using information published by the US Department of Energy.  As the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources oversees this department, the data should be readily available to the political leaders driving energy legislation:

Alaska's greenhouse gas emissions compared to average volcanic emissions.

The State of Alaska’s total annual man-made greenhouse gas emissions equals 39 million metric tons.  Meaning Senator Murkowski’s home state produces roughly 10 times the amount of greenhouse gas as what was likely produced by the Bardarbunga eruption –  or approximately 18% of the global total of volcanic eruptions annually.

United States greenhouse gas emissions compared to average volcanic emissions

The United States produces a total of 5,384 million metric tons or the equvalent of 1,495 Bardarbunga volcanos.  That is over 2,700% of the total global greenhouse gas produced by volcanic activity annually.


The scale of man-made greenhouse gas emissions currently can only be described as massive.  Every year, man-made greenhouse gas emissions total approximately 39 billion metric tons.  With man-made emissions at roughly 19,500% volcanoes, our impact on Earth’s atmosphere absolutely dwarfs that of the global volcanic activity. 

It turns out that Senator Murkowski's statement about man-made emission levels is off by a factor of 1.3 million times.

Making effective change to combating dynamic and global environmental impacts, requires a clear understanding of the relative scale of that impact.  How else can prioritization be given to where we place our attention? As individuals, it can be difficult to truly grasp the scale of global systems, let alone our individual impact within those systems.  The systems that make up global warming are large, but our impacts are massive, and the choices each of us make determines our bearing on the Earth as a species.

A sense of proportion is needed.