Volcanologists warn of the risk of a major eruption that "would devastate world society"

'A car drives down an Icelandic road covered in ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in May 2010. / Reuters

Science | Catastrophes

"The world is unfortunately underprepared" for an event that could cause "multi-billion dollar losses, comparable to those of the pandemic"

"The risks of a massive eruption devastating global society are significant. The lack of investment to respond to this danger is just reckless," says Lara Mani, a volcanologist at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge. She and her colleague Michael Cassidy, from the University of Birmingham, affirm today in the magazine 'Nature' that "the world is woefully underprepared" for an event that could break supply chains, cause famines and cause "multi-billion dollar losses, comparable to those of the pandemic.

The two experts sign an opinion article in which they draw attention to this risk. 'Data from ice cores on the frequency of eruptions over time suggest that there is a one in six chance of a magnitude 7 explosion in the next hundred years. That's a roll of the dice," Mani warns. Such gigantic eruptions have caused sudden climate changes and the collapse of civilizations in the past, the authors warn.

In 2021, the Tajogaite volcano (La Palma) reached an explosiveness index of 3 on the 8 scale that measures the magnitude of an eruption. Level 4 was Eyjafjallajökull (Iceland), which in April 2010 forced the cancellation of more than 20,000 flights in northern Europe. The eruption of the submarine volcano Hunga Tonga last January was magnitude 5, like that of Vesuvius that devastated Pompeii and Herculaneum.

volcanoes and asteroids

The Hunga Tonga, Cassidy and Mani point out, released ash hundreds of kilometers and caused losses equivalent to 18.5% of Tonga's GDP, in addition to “tsunamis that reached the Japanese, North American and South American coasts. Fortunately, it only lasted about 11 hours. "The Tonga eruption was the volcanic equivalent of an asteroid that narrowly missed the Earth, and should be considered a wake-up call," says the CSER researcher.

The Santorini caldera, whose 1628 BCE eruption is linked to the collapse of the Minoan civilization. /

Steve Jurvetson

The one in Krakatoa (Indonesia) in 1883, which killed more than 36,000 people, was of level 6. And of magnitude 7 were the eruption of Santorini (Greece) in 1628 before the common era, which could have been behind the collapse of the Minoan civilization, and that of Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815. In the latter, «it is estimated that 100,000 people died, and global temperatures dropped by one degree on average, causing massive crop losses that caused famines, violent riots and epidemics throughout the world. which became known as the year without a summer (1816)," recalls Cassidy.

Mani equates the risk of a massive eruption with that of a kilometer-long asteroid impact, which astronomers believe could wipe out civilization. Although of comparable climatic effects, “the probability of large-scale volcanic eruptions during the next century is hundreds of times greater than that of recorded asteroid and comet impacts,” the volcanologists point out.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on the asteroid threat, but there is a serious lack of funding and global coordination for volcano preparedness. This must urgently change. We are completely underestimating the risk that volcanoes pose to our societies,” Mani warns. The 1815 Tambora eruption is the last recorded magnitude 7 eruption, but now, says Cassidy, “there is eight times the population and more than forty times the level of trade. Our complex global networks could make us even more vulnerable to the impact of a major eruption."

No data for many eruptions

The authors believe that there is a need to invest in the prediction and management of such an event, as well as in the mitigation of less violent eruptions. They point out that we only know the location of a handful of the 97 major eruptions in the last 60,000 years. That means, they warn, that there could be dozens of dangerous volcanoes scattered around the world with extreme destructive potential whose existence we have no idea.

'The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius' (1777), by Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire.

“Even relatively recent eruptions may not be known to us due to a lack of investigation of marine and lake cores, especially in neglected regions such as Southeast Asia,” says Cassidy. "Volcanoes can be dormant for a long time, but still capable of sudden and extraordinary destruction," she adds.

According to Cassidy and Mani, no more than 27% of the eruptions recorded since 1950 have been controlled with instruments such as seismometers. In addition, only a third of this data has been uploaded to the World Database on Volcanic Disturbances (WOVOdat), when controlling seismicity, gas emission and terrain deformity could be used to predict eruptions. And they remember that, among other things, the volcanological community has been demanding for more than 20 years that a satellite be dedicated to monitoring these phenomena.

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