Volcanic catastrophe: The odds are higher than you think, and we’re not ready

An expected magnitude seven volcanic eruption would release as much energy as a 1-km asteroid impact.
Deena Theresa
Mount Rinjani in Indonesia, which had one of the largest eruptions in the last millennium in 1257 (magnitude 7).
Mount Rinjani in Indonesia, which had one of the largest eruptions in the last millennium in 1257 (magnitude 7).

Dr Mike Cassidy 

It's 2022 and we're more certain that civilizations could be wiped out if a gigantic asteroid whizzed toward Earth, resulting in a disastrous planet-altering collision. Turns out, there's another calamity that's not been on our radar for a while. One that has been underestimated for the past few years. One that we're "woefully underprepared" for.

A massive volcanic eruption.

In an article published in the journal Nature, experts from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) and the University of Birmingham state that the world is unready for a gigantic volcanic eruption and the possible repercussions on global supply chains, climate, and food.

"Data gathered from ice cores on the frequency of eruptions over deep time suggests there is a one-in-six chance of a magnitude seven explosion in the next one hundred years. That’s a roll of the dice," article co-author and CSER researcher Dr. Lara Mani, an expert in global risk, said in a statement.

The researchers say that there is a "broad misconception" that risks of major eruptions are low and describe the current lack of governmental investment in monitoring and responding to potential volcano disasters as "reckless".

"Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into asteroid threats every year, yet there is a severe lack of global financing and coordination for volcano preparedness," said Mani. "This urgently needs to change. We are completely underestimating the risk to our societies that volcanoes pose."

'More vulnerable to the shocks of a major eruption'

Mani compared the risk of a giant eruption to that of a 1km-wide asteroid crashing into Earth. While it would have similar climatic consequences, the likelihood of a volcanic catastrophe is much higher than the combined chances of an asteroid or comet collision.

An eruption in Tonga in January was the largest ever instrumentally recorded. According to the researchers, the global shock waves could have been devastating if the eruption had gone on longer and released more ash and gas.

"The Tonga eruption was the volcanic equivalent of an asteroid just missing the Earth and needs to be treated as a wake-up call," said Mani.

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

"The last magnitude seven eruptions was in 1815 in Indonesia," said co-author Dr. Mike Cassidy, a volcano expert and visiting CSER researcher, now based at the 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," he said.

Quote
Our complex global networks could make us even more vulnerable to the shocks of a major eruption

Not all hope's lost

However, the researchers argue that steps can be taken to protect against volcanic devastation, ranging from improved surveillance to increased public education and magma manipulation.

Mani and Cassidy outlined steps that needed to be taken to help forecast and manage the possibility of a planet-altering eruption and help mitigate damage from more minor, more frequent eruptions.

These include a more accurate pinpointing of risks. As of now, we're only aware of a handful of the 97 eruptions classed as large magnitude on the "Volcano Explosivity Index" over the past 60,000 years. This means that there could be many more dangerous volcanoes dotted over the world with the potential for absolute destruction, clueless to humanity.

Monitoring must also improve.

"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 studying the means of countering aerosols released by a massive eruption, which could lead to a "volcanic winter". Work to investigate "manipulating" pockets of magma beneath active volcanoes should also be undertaken.

"Directly affecting volcanic behavior may seem inconceivable, but so did the deflection of asteroids until the formation of the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office in 2016. The risks of a massive eruption that devastates global society are significant. The current underinvestment in responding to this risk is simply reckless," added Mani.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron