British experts from the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) of the University of Cambridge and the University of Birmingham, warn that a huge volcanic eruption is not at all unlikely in the coming decades.
The indirect effects of such a thing – beyond the immediate destruction – would be serious for the climate and the food chain.
The probability of a giant volcanic eruption (magnitude 7 on the relative explosivity scale “Volcano Explosivity Index-VOI”) somewhere on Earth within the next few years is estimated at one in six.
The scientists, who made the relevant publication in the journal “Nature”, describe the colossal event as a “roll of the dice” to show that the issue should start to be taken more seriously than until now when attention is turned to other big risks for humanity (climate crisis, asteroid impact, etc.).
The experts stress that “there is a widespread misconception that the risks of a major volcanic eruption are low” and point out that the current lack of government investment in surveillance and response in the event of a volcanic disaster is “reckless”.
That’s why they call for early action, such as better public awareness of volcanic hazards, but also bolder initiatives, such as improved management of magma at dangerous volcanoes.
“Data collected from ice cores on the frequency of volcanic eruptions over long periods of time shows that there is a one in six chance of a magnitude seven eruption within the next 100 years. This is equivalent to rolling the dice. “Such giant eruptions have caused abrupt climate change and the collapse of civilizations in the distant past,” said CSER researcher Dr Lara Mani.
As he said, the risk of a giant volcanic eruption is hundreds of times greater than the risk of an asteroid or comet with a diameter of one kilometer falling to Earth.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars are devoted to asteroid threats every year, yet there is a serious lack of global funding and coordination in preparing for a volcanic eruption. This is something that must – urgently – change. We completely underestimate the danger that volcanoes pose to our societies,” he added.
The last major volcanic eruption on Earth occurred in Tonga this January. Experts estimate that if it had lasted longer, released more ash and gases, or occurred in an area with vital infrastructure such as the Mediterranean, its local and global effects would have been catastrophic.
“The Tonga eruption was the volcanic equivalent of an asteroid whizzing past Earth and should be treated as a wake-up call,” Mani noted.
The researchers estimate, based on the study of traces of sulfur in ancient ice cores, that a volcanic eruption ten to 100 times more powerful than the one in Tonga occurs about every 625 years, twice the frequency previously estimated.
Volcanologist Dr Mike Cassidy of Birmingham pointed out that “the last eruption of magnitude 7 occurred in 1815 in Indonesia.
“An estimated 100,000 people died on the spot and global temperatures dropped by an average of one degree, causing massive crop damage, leading to famine, violent uprisings and epidemics during what became known as the “year without a summer”.
We now live in a world with eight times the population and at least 40 times the level of trade. Our complex global networks make us even more vulnerable to the shocks of a major explosion.”
Experts report that the economic damages from a huge volcanic eruption will be in the order of several trillion dollars, on a scale comparable to a major pandemic.
So far, scientists have pinpointed the location of only a few of a total of 97 major volcanic eruptions estimated to have occurred over the past 60,000 years based on evidence in the geological “record”.
This means that on our planet there may be dozens of volcanoes capable of causing very destructive eruptions, but which have not yet been identified.
“We may not even know about relatively recent eruptions because of the lack of research on sea and lake cores, especially in neglected areas of SE Asia. “Volcanoes can remain ‘dormant’ for a long time, but they are nevertheless capable of sudden and unusual destruction,” Cassidy stressed.
British experts point out that there is room for improvement in monitoring volcanoes, as from 1950 to the present day only about one in four eruptions (27%) had any seismograph installed near them, while only a third of even those data from the instruments have been entered into a global volcano database.
Scientists call, among other things, to increase research on direct geo-interventions (“geoengineering”) on potentially dangerous volcanoes.
“Directly influencing volcanic behavior may seem inconceivable, but so did asteroid deterrence until 2016 when NASA created the Planetary Defense Coordination Office,” Mani pointed out.