Could volcanoes or meteorite strikes affect renewable solar energy performance?

image courtesy of Boaworm via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Eyjafjallajokull volcano plume 2010 04 17, Iceland
image courtesy of Boaworm via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported


150 MW Andasol solar power station in Spain on a cloudy dayimage courtesy of BSMPS via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

150 MW Andasol solar power station in Spain on a cloudy day
image courtesy of BSMPS via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


Large volcanoes, crater blasting meteorites and other cataclysmic events can introduce massive amounts of debris into the atmosphere, darkening the sky and reducing the output of solar power stations, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and solar thermal systems. Fortunately, these events are highly unlikely to occur within any given millennium – and even if such a calamity does happen, it may not have a dramatic effect upon the direct output of renewable solar energy collectors. Since solar collectors and panels can generate useful amounts of electricity even in cloudy climates, only the most gigantic disasters are likely to have an overwhelming effect upon solar renewable energy capacity.

To gain some perspective about the really cataclysmic events, consider two key past events: the Toba Volcanic Eruption and the Vredefort Meteorite Strike. The good news is that the chance of a really big occurrence within the next 1,000 years is very, very small.


weather-few-cloudsToba Volcanic Eruption. According to the Toba catastrophe theory 69,000 to 80,000 years ago a super volcanic event at Lake Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra caused a global volcanic winter lasting 6–10 years. This largest known volcanic eruption in the history of the human species contributed an assumed emission of six billion tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide is transformed in the atmosphere into sulfate aerosol, fine particles that reflect away the sun’s radiation.

Although the Toba event caused a major drop in human population, the average worldwide direct effect upon renewable solar energy collection, had it existed then, may have been moderate. Making a guess based on estimates of cooling at the Earth’s surface combined with atmospheric optical properties, the Toba eruption may have caused a 5% reduction in useable solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface averaged over the first 3 years following the eruption. The effect in weeks immediately after the eruption, and in specific locations, could of course been much more severe.<1><2><3><4><5><6>


4118056340_e000cc8fba_t_aVredefort Meteorite Strike. This meteorite formed the largest verified impact crater on Earth, roughly 190 mi (300 km) across. The crater’s age is estimated to be about 2 billion years. The asteroid that hit near the current town of Vredefort, South Africa is estimated to have been one of the largest ever to strike Earth (at least since the Hadean eon some four billion years ago), thought to have been approximately 3.1–6.2 mi (5–10 km) in diameter.

One projection has indicated that such an impact would likely send a massive amount of tiny articles into the atmosphere. These particles would then be spread throughout the atmosphere and absorb or refract sunlight before it is able to reach the surface. The particles would remain in the atmosphere for about a year before precipitating out, but even then only about 85% of the sun’s radiation would reach the surface.

After the first 20 days, the land temperature would have dropped quickly, by about 23F (13C). After about a year, the temperature would rebound by about 11F (6C), but by this time about one-third of the Northern Hemisphere would be covered in ice. There could have also been a massive fire storm releasing ash and other debris into the atmosphere. These particles would add to the perturbation of the climate, and cause the dust cloud blocking the sun to last longer.

One guess is that a human-built renewable solar energy collection system, had it existed so long ago, would have found itself with very little sunlight during the first 20 days after impact. A year after impact, sunlight at the surface might have returned to perhaps 85% of normal.

Our first human-like relatives did not actually appear on Earth until about 2 million years ago. Had humans been present at the time of the Vredefort meteorite, solar renewable energy stations and panels would not have been the biggest source of concern. Since the meteorite strike severely diminished sunlight, plants that survive by photosynthesis were threatened, which would have drastically limited the supply of food for humans.<6><7><8><9><10>




<1>Natural disaster,
<2>Toba catastrophe theory,
<3>Did the Toba volcanic eruption of ˜74 ka B.P. produce widespread glaciation?, 05/2009, Journal of Geophysical Research,
<4>Image in volcano icon courtesy of United States Geological Survey,
<5>Change of Direction: Do SO2 Emissions Lead to Warming?,
<6>Atmosphere of Earth,
<7>Vredefort crater,
<8>Impact winter,
<9>Image in meteor icon: 2009 Leonid Meteor (cropped, afterglow closeup), courtesy of Ed Sweeney on flickr CC by 2.0
<10>Human evolution,

Categories: Big Changes


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