Mount Sinabung in Indonesia has been erupting for about the past five years now, displacing tens of thousands as it sends debris flows toward populated areas. On Feb. 19, the volcano unleashed a far more explosive eruption that vaulted smoke and ash more than 25,000 feet into the air, prompting aviation alerts for aircraft to steer clear of the area.
The eruption, which occurred on the island of North Sumatra, was caught on video by residents of Berestagi, which is about 15 miles to the west of the mountain, as well as residents of towns further away. Areas under the ash cloud saw the sky turn from day into night, while a layer of volcanic dust fell onto the ground.
According to the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, the 8,000-foot volcano is thought to have erupted in 1881 as well as 1912, followed by explosive eruptions in 2010 and more recent activity beginning in 2013.
Major volcanic eruptions, particularly those that loft large amounts of ash high into the atmosphere — at least 40,000 feet high — can actually alter the planet’s climate. History is full of examples of temporary cooling periods following massive volcanic eruptions, such as Mt. Tambora in 1812, and Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.
Studies have shown that volcanoes in the tropics have a greater climate influence than volcanoes at higher latitudes.
This eruption was not big enough, in terms of material lofted into the upper atmosphere, to put Mt. Sinabung on the list with those other historic, climate-altering eruptions. However, it is a volcano that scientists are keeping a close eye on.
Even if it were to blow its top in a big way, it would only cool the planet for a year or two. Long-term global warming from human emissions of greenhouse gases would continue.
Scientists looking into ways to artificially cool the planet as a possible fix to global warming — a plan referred to as geoengineering — are considering mimicking the cooling mechanism from volcanoes by injecting tiny particles into the upper atmosphere, which would reflect incoming solar radiation.
There are many pros and cons to such plans, which are moving into the testing stage.