April 21, 2010

Air Travel More Environmentally Harmful than Volcanic Ash

The greenhouse gas delivered by Iceland's erupting volcano does not compare to that spewed by Europe's grounded aircraft.

According to Durham University, carbon dioxide emissions totaled 150,000 tons daily during the early period of the eruption. That compares with 510,000 tons per day emitted from normal European air travel.

However, experts say it was hard to draw conclusions about the overall pollution impact because more cars and buses were on the roads to help stranded travelers, and the volcano is emitting a nasty cocktail of toxins.

Europe's airlines were back on track Wednesday after an ash cloud stranded passengers for six days, costing the airline industry $250 million a day.  Ash can scour and even paralyze jet engines.

Scientists say planes add to global warming through emissions of carbon, other chemicals, and their vapor trails. They can also produce pollutants and noise pollution around airports.

The London Air Quality Network said that the first analysis of air quality around London's two busiest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, showed pollutants that can cause respiratory problems had plummeted.

"That entire signal dropped to zero (from Thursday through Saturday)," Ben Barratt at King's College London, who helps coordinate the Network's data, referring to nitrogen dioxide, told Reuters.

"The quality of life difference is mostly down to noise, and we're getting lots of emails saying how lovely it is," he added.

According to the European Environment Agency, aviation in 32 European nations emitted 510,000 tons of C02 a day in 2007. If two-thirds of flights are cancelled that means it would cut 340,000 tons a day, not including non-European carriers.

Colin Macpherson, a geologist at the University of Durham in England, believes the volcano's initial emissions were at 150,000 tons of CO2 a day. He used data from a previous eruption to make this assertion.

Northerly winds helped limit health damage from the Icelandic volcano by blowing the ash offshore to Europe. Air quality in nations like Britain and Norway has been largely unaffected because little ash has reached the ground so far.


On the Net:

European Environment Agency

King's College of London

London Air Quality Network