How PurpleAir is Helping Researchers Study Volcanic Pollution

Volcanic air pollution

Known for their plumes of smoke and molten lava, volcanoes have always been a source of geological wonder.  

However, they’re also a great source of air pollution. 

Volcanic eruptions can emit dangerous levels of particulate matter, aerosols, and other gaseous air pollutants. Even before an eruption, volcanoes may release toxic gases that can lead to health issues. While we can’t control volcanic activity, we can study and monitor it. That way, we can better understand volcanoes and make evidence-based decisions to protect ourselves.  

This is exactly what researcher Rosie Lewis, from the University of Leeds in the UK, is doing for her PhD field campaign. With the help of PurpleAir air quality monitors, she hopes to collect substantial air quality data that can lead to deeper insights into volcanic pollution. 

Today, we’ll discuss Lewis’s air quality research and the impact of volcanoes on air quality. 

How Volcanoes Affect Air Quality 

Volcanoes may significantly affect local and global air quality in a multitude of ways. First, volcanoes can fill the atmosphere with thick clouds of ash. This volcanic air pollution can increase particulate matter above the safe levels and create air quality index warnings.  

Here are four primary ways volcanoes impact air quality: 

#1 – Volcanic Pollution 

When volcanoes erupt, they release a mixture of ash, aerosols, and toxic gases. This mixture can then become a major source of air pollution that endangers human health. The composition of volcanic pollution varies by eruption and volcano, but the primary components are: 

  • Particulate Matter
  • Carbon Dioxide 
  • Sulfur Dioxide 
  • Hydrogen Chloride 
  • Hydrogen Sulfide 
  • Hydrogen Fluoride

#2 – Volcanic Smog 

Once the pollutants from volcanic eruptions reach the atmosphere, they evolve and transform. These air pollutants are sometimes known as volcanic smog, or vog. For example, sulfur oxides turn into fine, acid sulfate particles (aerosols) as they react to sunlight, atmospheric gases, and aerosols.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns the public against vog exposure as these air pollutants can penetrate deep into your lungs and may cause exacerbation of existing respiratory diseases and short-term respiratory symptoms.

#3 – Local Impact 

Air quality during volcanic eruptions can reach dangerous levels lasting several days. As such, communities near volcanoes experience the most immediate and severe consequences. Aside from breathing air thick with pollution, the eruption can also damage crops, prevent transportation, and impact infrastructure. Crop and infrastructure are also vulnerable to acid rain as sulfur dioxide reaches the atmosphere.

#4 – Global Ramifications 

Because of atmospheric winds, volcanic emissions can be carried in the atmosphere over vast distances. As such, countries thousands of miles away can still experience exposure to volcanic gases and particulate.

Not only that, but volcanic eruptions can also be so large that they have a direct impact on the entire world. One such instance is the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991, which released 17 megatons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Within three weeks of the volcanic eruption in the Philippines, the aerosol cloud had circumnavigated the Earth.

How Volcanic Pollution Affects Human Health 

More than a billion people live within 100 kilometers of an active volcano. As such, many are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution from volcanoes. Short-term exposure to volcanic pollution can lead to: 

  • Irritation of eyes, airways, or skin 
  • Sore throat, coughing, and wheezing
  • Dizziness 
  • Headaches 
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lack of energy 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), long-term exposure to volcanic pollution can contribute to the development of: 

  • Respiratory disorders  
  • Lung infection 
  • Bronchitis 

The Future of Volcanic Air Pollution Research 

While there are records of the immediate impact of volcanic eruptions on health, there’s less research on its long-term effects. There is even less data on the impact of passive volcanic pollution without the event of an eruption. 

Rosie Lewis, a Ph.D. researcher in Volcanology, has been working on this project for a year to shed more light on volcanic and other sources of pollution on the island of Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory in the Eastern Caribbean. Together with Montserrat Volcano Observatory, the Disaster Management and Coordination Agency, and her supervisors from the University of Leeds and Durham University, installed 11 low-cost air quality monitors (PurpleAir and sulfur dioxide monitors), across the island as well as reference-grade monitors.

Montserrat has been severely affected by the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano. The eruptions started in 1995 and frequently emitted ash, gas and aerosols until 2011. Since then, it has continued to emit gases and aerosols, which sometimes affect the local community when the wind blows the emissions over the island.The PurpleAir and gas sensor network is being calibrated to reference-grade monitors so that the data can be compared to air quality standards. She is also modelling the dispersion of the emissions over the island, and conducting geochemical analyses of the aerosols (collected on filters) to determine their composition. 

Through this, Lewis hopes to gain insight into the c ommunity’s exposure to volcanic and other pollutants on the island, so that the potential health hazards can be assessed.

We can’t wait to see the air quality data and research insights that Lewis will find in her air quality study. We hope that it will give more information on the impact of volcanic pollution, so communities near volcanoes can make evidence-based decisions that protect their health and well-being. 

Connect With PurpleAir  

At PurpleAir, there are tons of organizations and researchers around the world using our data—from Google to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We’re thrilled to see research like the one we analyzed above be used to help local neighborhoods, and we look forward to seeing more in the future.  

Are you a technology company or institution looking to work with PurpleAir?  

We’d love to connect and see how we can help you. Whether you’re interested in our air quality monitors or using our air quality data for your projects, feel free to reach out.