Reagan Was Right on Sulfur Dioxide Emissions from Mount St. Helens
The Huffington Post has a pop-up feature entitled "Politicians' Science Gaffes" included on a related article about how "GOP Lawmaker Says Climate Change Is 'The Greatest Deception In The History Of Mankind'." Of course, the feature only includes Republican politicians (10 in total) who have said purportedly dumb things about science.
And, according to the Huffington Post, the first listed science gaffe by a politician is the following statement by Ronald Reagan:
"I have flown twice over Mount St. Helens out on our West Coast. I'm not a scientist and I don't know the figures, but I have a suspicion that that one little mountain has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about. -- President Ronald Reagan, 1980"
The Huffington Post's reply to Reagan is as follows: "Not quite. Cars emit about 81,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per day, while Mount St. Helens emitted only about 2,000 tons."
Not surprisingly, we have another major science fail at the Huffington Post.
So where did HuffPo get their information? It appears they are just repeating and misrepresenting an AP article from the October 9, 1980 edition of the Spokane newspaper the Spokesman-Review.
Here is what the USGS now says about Mount St. Helens:
"An estimated 1.5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide gas was discharged by Mount St. Helens during the explosive eruption of 18 May 1980. Thus, approximately 2 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide was released during the whole eruption sequence."
Consequently, the eruption of Mount St. Helens emitted about 2 million tons of sulfur dioxide over a very short period of time -- and 1.5 million tons on a single day, not the 2,000 tons HuffPo claims. Only off by three orders of magnitude, which perhaps HuffPo deems is close enough for its efforts at public science communication?
HuffPo claims that "cars emit about 81,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per day." Where did this data come from? Note that the 1980 newspaper story quotes Bill Jacobson from the USEPA as saying that "all manmade emissions of sulfur dioxide in the entire country, per day, amount to 81,000 tons." But Jacobson is talking about all anthropogenic sources of sulfur dioxide in the United States, not just cars.
And look what else Jacobson from the USEPA said in that 1980 article:
"Jacobson said EPA personnel in Washington, D.C. were attempting to determine how much of that amount was produced by automobiles, but the task was difficult because cars emit little sulfur dioxide.
'Cars principally emit carbon compounds, such as carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxides,' said Jacobson. 'Sulfur dioxide is not a problem with auto emissions.'"
Cars emit so little sulfur dioxide that the USEPA was having difficulty determining how much they emit in 1980, and the USEPA is on-record as saying "sulfur dioxide is not a problem with auto emissions." Seems to support Reagan and refute the Huffington Post, doesn't it?
At about this time, sulfur dioxide emissions from all "on-road and nonroad mobile sources" in the United States averaged about 0.8 million tons per year, or approximately 2000 tons per day. Highway vehicles comprise less than half of the total on-road and nonroad emissions, meaning that "automobile driving" was perhaps in the range of 1000 tons per day of sulfur dioxide emissions when Reagan was speaking. According to that 1980 newspaper article, "Jacobson said St. Helens' [post-eruption] daily sulfur dioxide emissions range from 500 tons to 2,000 tons."
Thus, if we add together the massive release of sulfur dioxide that occurred from Mount St. Helens when it erupted, along with the likely pre- and post-eruption emissions for five years on either side of the eruption, Reagan's claim that he had "a suspicion that that one little mountain has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving" appears to be fairly close to accurate, and certainly far more accurate than the Huffington Post's claims.
Reagan also didn't specify a time frame for Mount St. Helens' sulfur dioxide emissions, but did set a decade-long limit for the corresponding emissions from "automobile driving." The mountain has erupted many times in the past, and if we add up the cumulative sulfur dioxide emissions for the mountain's entire history, these emissions are most certainly far, far greater than any corresponding emissions from "automobile driving" over a decade sometime in the 1970s and 1980s.
Regardless of how we look at it, things are getting desperate at HuffPo and elsewhere if they think Mount St. Helens emitted only about 2,000 tons per day of sulfur dioxide at its peak during the 1980 eruption. The science gaffe on this topic doesn't sit with Reagan, it sits squarely on the Huffington Post and with various writers who have repeated this nonsense for more than three decades.