Volcanic eruptions are more likely to cause world weather changes than possible impacts from comets, a team of scientists announced to the American Geophysical Union last week. Massive eruptions of magma, ash and gas, which are spewing out of Popocatepetl near Mexico City right now, can have a severe and lasting impact on the world?s climate.

Volcanologists have begun a study to determine the impact of severe volcanic eruptions on the earth. The most powerful recent eruption, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, killed 800 people. It blasted dust into the atmosphere that led to measurable changes in world weather patterns that persisted until the mid nineties. During this period, the amount of light reaching the surface of the earth was reduced, leading to a decrease in the rate of warming.

Mt. Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, killing 90,000 people and emitting so much dust and debris that Europe lost its summer growing season due to cloud cover.

Hans Graf of the Max Planck Institute for Meterology in Germany said that we need to gain a clearer understanding of the effects of volcanic explosions on the atmosphere, which can spew out ozone-destroying chemicals and fill the air with aerosol droplets that absorb solar heat. “This leads to dynamic consequences, like the warming of continents,” Graf said.

Volcanologists are using satellites to monitor volcano activity on earth, hoping to learn how to predict eruptions, so that nearby communities can be evacuated. There are more than 600 potentially active volcanoes around the world.

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