The risk of a catastrophic volcanic eruption is surprisingly high – and the world is ‘woefully unprepared’

Experts believe a magnitude seven volcanic eruption would cause pandemic-like damage.

Experts say the risk of a catastrophic eruption is “a roll of the dice”.

Experts from the University of Birmingham and the University of Cambridge’s Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) say the world is ‘woefully underprepared’ for a catastrophic volcanic eruption and its expected effects on networks global supply, climate, and food.

They say there is a ‘big misconception’ that the likelihood of massive eruptions is low and call the government’s current lack of investment in monitoring and mitigating possible volcanic disasters ‘reckless’ in a article recently published in the journal. Nature.

However, the researchers argue that protective measures against volcanic destruction can be adopted, including better monitoring, better public education and manipulation of magma, and the resources to do so are long overdue.

“Data collected from ice cores on the frequency of eruptions over deep time suggests that there is a one in six chance of a magnitude seven outburst within the next hundred years. dice,” said the paper’s co-author and CSER researcher Dr. Lara Mani, an expert in global risks.

“Such gigantic eruptions caused abrupt climate change and the collapse of civilizations in the distant past.”

Mani likens the threat of a massive eruption to that of a mile-wide asteroid hitting Earth. Similar climatic consequences would result from such catastrophes, but the probability of a volcanic catastrophe is hundreds of times greater than the probability of an asteroid or comet collision.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into asteroid threats every year, but there is a severe lack of global funding and coordination for volcano preparedness,” Mani said. “This needs to change urgently. We completely underestimate the risk that volcanoes pose to our societies. »

The largest instrumental eruption on record occurred in Tonga in January. Experts say if the eruption had lasted longer, emitted more ash and gas, or occurred in a location with critical infrastructure, such as the Mediterranean, the global shock waves could have been catastrophic.

“The Tonga eruption was the volcanic equivalent of an asteroid narrowly missing Earth and should be treated as a wake-up call,” Mani said.

CSER experts cite recent research detecting the regularity of major eruptions by analyzing traces of sulfur spikes in samples of ancient ice. An eruption ten to a hundred times larger than the Tonga Explosion occurs once every 625 years – twice as often as previously thought.

“The last magnitude seven eruption was in 1815 in Indonesia,” said co-author Dr. Mike Cassidy, volcano expert and CSER Visiting Fellow, now based in CSER.[{” attribute=””>University of Birmingham.

“An estimated 100,000 people died locally, and global temperatures dropped by a degree on average, causing mass crop failures that led to famine, violent uprisings, and epidemics in what was known as the year without summer,” he said.

“We now live in a world with eight times the population and over forty times the level of trade. Our complex global networks could make us even more vulnerable to the shocks of a major eruption.”

Financial losses from a large magnitude eruption would be in the multi-trillions, and on a comparable scale to the pandemic, say the experts.

Mani and Cassidy outline steps they say need to be taken to help forecast and manage the possibility of a planet-altering eruption and help mitigate damage from smaller, more frequent eruptions.

These include a more accurate pinpointing of risks. We only know the locations of a handful of the 97 eruptions classed as large magnitude on the “Volcano Explosivity Index” over the last 60,000 years. This means there could be dozens of dangerous volcanoes dotted the world over with the potential for extreme destruction, about which humanity has no clue.

“We may not know about even relatively recent eruptions due to a lack of research into marine and lake cores, particularly in neglected regions such as Southeast Asia,” said Cassidy. “Volcanoes can lie dormant for a long time, but still be capable of sudden and extraordinary destruction.”

Monitoring must be improved, say the CSER experts. Only 27% of eruptions since 1950 have had a seismometer anywhere near them, and only a third of that data again has been fed into the global database for “volcanic unrest”.

“Volcanologists have been calling for a dedicated volcano-monitoring satellite for over twenty years,” said Mani. “Sometimes we have to rely on the generosity of private satellite companies for rapid imagery.”

The experts also call for increased research into volcano “geoengineering”. This includes the need to study means of countering aerosols released by a massive eruption, which could lead to a “volcanic winter”. They also say that work to investigate manipulating pockets of magma beneath active volcanoes should be undertaken.

Added Mani: “Directly affecting volcanic behavior may seem inconceivable, but so did the deflection of asteroids until the formation of the

Reference: “Huge volcanic eruptions: time to prepare” by Michael Cassidy and Lara Mani, 17 August 2022, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/d41586-022-02177-x

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