Even weak volcanic eruptions can cause a global catastrophe, scientists warn

Even weak volcanic eruptions can cause a global catastrophe, scientists warn
Even weak volcanic eruptions can cause a global catastrophe, scientists warn

The danger of large-scale volcanic eruptions is very real: in the worst case, an extremely rare and powerful supervolcano eruption can even devastate the planet. But now scientists are warning that even such an extreme eruption will not be required to cause a global catastrophe.

Much smaller volcanic events could wreak havoc enough to endanger the modern world, according to new research.

“Even a minor eruption in one of our identified areas could cause enough ash or tremors strong enough to disrupt networks central to global supply chains and financial systems,” says global risk researcher Lara Mani of the University of Cambridge.

"At present, the calculations are too biased towards giant explosions or nightmarish scenarios, while the more likely risks are associated with moderate events that disable major international communications, trade networks or transport hubs."

Moderate eruptions may not get our attention as much as their thundering cousins, but they can wreak more havoc.

As an example, the 1991 eruption of Mt 6 Pinatubo in the Philippines was about 100 times more powerful than the eruption of the Icelandic Mt 4 Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010.

However, Eyjafjallajökull turned out to be the most costly volcanic eruption in history, damaging the global economy in the amount of US $ 5 billion, while losses from the much more powerful eruption of Mount Pinatubo accounted for only a small fraction of that amount (US $ 740 million in 2021 adjusted for inflation).

How is such an imbalance possible? Mani and her team call this "VEI-GCR asymmetry": a new kind of paradigm where the danger of volcanoes (global catastrophic risk, GCR) does not grow in line with the strength of volcanoes (volcanic explosiveness index, VEI).

Historically, estimates of volcanic risk assumed that the more powerful a volcanic eruption, the more dangerous it poses in terms of global catastrophic risk: this relationship can be called "VEI-GCR symmetry".

But this may no longer be the case, as much of the world's critical infrastructure today - including international shipping lanes, undersea telecommunications cables, and air transport routes - is not in close proximity to the volcanic regions that produce the most powerful eruptions (with VEI 7 or eight).

"We are seeing many of these critical infrastructures and networks converge in regions where they may be affected by moderate-scale volcanic eruptions (VEI 3-6)," the researchers write in their study.

"These regions of intersection, or points of contact, represent places where we have prioritized efficiency over sustainability and created a new global landscape of catastrophic risk."

According to the team's analysis, there are seven such "touch points" around the world, where critical infrastructure is dangerously close to eruptions ranging from magnitude 3 to 6.

Among them is Taiwan, where a huge number of microchips are produced, the global supply of which is threatened due to its proximity to the Tatun Volcanic Group (TWG).

In the US, moderate eruptions in the Pacific Northwest could disrupt trade and travel in both the US and Canada, causing massive economic damage.

Meanwhile, Iceland's volcanoes have the potential to create a common ground in the North Atlantic, disrupting air links between London and New York and causing major delays in trade and transport networks.

Other international risk spots in and around Malaysia threaten some of the world's busiest shipping routes.

Another point, located in the Luzon Strait, is a key route for submarine telecommunications cables connecting China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea - all of which can be damaged by eruptions causing submarine landslides and tsunamis, leading to serious disruptions to communications and global financial markets.

Such consequences are not the first that come to mind when we think about the destructive power of volcanoes, but perhaps it should be, the researchers say.

“It's time to change our attitude towards extreme volcanic risk,” says Mani.

"We need to abandon the notion of colossal eruptions destroying the world, as portrayed in Hollywood films. More likely scenarios involve eruptions of lesser magnitude, interacting with the vulnerability of our society and leading us to disaster."

The results of the study are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

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