The risk of volcanic disaster “a throw of the dice”

The world is “woefully underprepared” for a massive volcanic eruption and its likely impact on global supply chains, climate and food, according to experts from the Center for the Research of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge and the University of Birmingham.

they say that there is a “big misconception” that the risks of major eruptions are low, and describes the current lack of government investment in monitoring and responding to potential volcanic disasters as “reckless”.

However, the researchers say that steps can be taken to protect against volcanic devastation – from improved surveillance to increased public education and manipulation of magma – and the resources needed for the do is long overdue.

“The data collected from the ice cores on frequency of eruptions over deep time suggest there is a one in six chance of a magnitude seven outburst within the next hundred years. It’s a roll of the dice,” said paper co-author and CSER researcher Dr Lara Mani, world risk expert.

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

Mani compares the risk of a giant eruption to that of a 1 km asteroid wide crashing into the Earth. Such events would have similar climatic consequences, but the probability of a volcanic catastrophe is hundreds of times greater than the combined probabilities of an asteroid or comet collision.

“Hundreds of millions of pounds are pumped into asteroid threats each year, but there is a serious lack of global funding and coordination for volcano preparedness,” Mani said. “This needs to change urgently. We completely underestimate the risk that volcanoes represent for our societies.”

An eruption in Tonga in January was the largest on record instrumentally. The researchers say that if it had lasted longer, released more ash and gas, or had happened in an area full of critical infrastructure – like the Mediterranean – then the global shockwaves could have been devastating.

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

CSER gurus 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 Indonesia,” the co-author said. , Dr. Mike Cassidy, skilled in volcanoes and CSER Visiting Researcher, now based at the University of Birmingham.

“It is estimated that 100 people died locally and global temperatures dropped by one degree on average, causing losses massive harvests that led to famine, violent uprisings and epidemics in what was called the year without a 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 eruption would be in the trillions and a scale comparable to the pandemic, according to authorities.

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

These include more accurate risk identification. We only know the locations of a handful of the 97 eruptions classified as large magnitude on the “Volcano Explosivity Index” over the past 60 000 last years. This means that there could be dozens of dangerous volcanoes dotted around the world with extreme destructive potential, of which humanity has no idea.

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

Monitoring needs to be improved, say CSER officials. Only 27% of eruptions since 1950 have had a nearby seismometer, and only a third of this data has yet been entered into the global database for “volcanic difficulties”.

“Volcanologists have been calling for a satellite dedicated to monitoring volcanoes for more than twenty years ”, said Mani. “Sometimes we have to rely on the generosity of private satellite companies to get quick images.”

Experts also call for increased research into “geoengineering” volcanoes . This includes the need to study ways to counter the aerosols released by a broad eruption, which could lead to a “volcanic winter”. They also say that work to investigate the manipulation of magma pockets beneath active volcanoes should be undertaken.

Mani added: “Directly affecting volcanic behavior may seem inconceivable, but the deflection of asteroids was until the formation of NASA’s 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.”

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