We’re Worried About the Wrong Volcanoes

We’re Worried About the Wrong Volcanoes
Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupting in 2010. (Image: Arnar Thorisson/Helicopter.is, AP)

New research identifies several clusters of relatively small volcanoes that, should they erupt, would ravage critical infrastructure and the global economy.

Powerful volcanoes, needless to say, inflict a lot of damage, and by consequence they draw much of our concern. But as new research published in Nature Communications points out, gigantic eruptions are relatively rare, whereas smaller eruptions happen with more frequency. And because small volcanoes are capable of disrupting things like aviation, trade, and communications, they pose significant risks to our modern civilisation.

“It’s time to change how we view extreme volcanic risk,” Lara Mani, the lead author of the paper and a researcher from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, explained in a press release. “We need to move away from thinking in terms of colossal eruptions destroying the world, as portrayed in Hollywood films. The more probable scenarios involve lower-magnitude eruptions interacting with our societal vulnerabilities and cascading us towards catastrophe.”

Mani and her colleagues bring up a good point. Eruptions are rated along the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), which ranks eruptions on a scale from 1 to 8. Colossal eruptions that rank as high as 7 or 8 on this scale, such as the Yellowstone Caldera from 600,000 years ago and the Long Valley Caldera from 760,000 years ago, thankfully don’t occur very often. That said, big eruptions have happened in recent history, namely the Tambora eruption of 1815 (VEI 7).

At the same time, eruptions ranking through 3 to 6, while not nearly as destructive, happen about once every decade or two. Good examples include Mount St. Helens in 1980 (VEI 4), Pinatubo in 1991 (VEI 6), and Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 (VEI 4). At the same time, and as the new research points out, a significant portion of our critical infrastructure is located near lower-magnitude volcanic centres, and because “moderate volcanic eruptions might have cascading, catastrophic effects,” our “risk assessments ought to be considered in this light,” as the scientists write.

Mani and her colleagues identified seven distinct “pinch points” around the world — regions where critical infrastructure is located next to clusters of small but dangerous volcanoes (i.e. VEI 3-6). These pinch points include the northwestern United States, Taiwan, the Chinese-North Korean border, the Luzon Strait (a passage that connects the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea), Malay (specifically the Strait of Malacca), the Mediterranean, and the North Atlantic.

Ash clouds, volcanic gases, mudflows, landslides, earthquakes, and tsunamis, the researchers argue, could wreak havoc in these regions, snapping undersea cables, destroying crops, damaging power plants, electric grids, and pipelines, and making maritime passages unnavigable, among other scenarios. This cascade of despair would continue, disrupting international communications networks, global supply chains, and financial systems. In some particularly hard-hit regions, an eruption could even result in civil unrest and the toppling of governments.

As the paper points out, an eruption in the northwest United States involving either Mount Rainier, Glacier Peak, or Mount Baker (~VEI 6) would spawn mudflows and ash clouds near Seattle. Airports and seaports in the region, which account for 2.5% of the U.S.’s total traffic, would grind to halt. Estimated losses would reach $US7.63 ($10) billion of global GDP over a five-year period, according to the study.

Other scenarios proposed in the study include devastation to tech industries near Taipei (especially computer chip manufacturing), busted undersea cables in the Mediterranean, restricted maritime access through the Suez Canal (sounds familiar — that stuck container ship from last March cost $US9 ($12) billion a day in global trade), the Indonesian archipelago, and the Luzon Strait, and disruptions to aerial traffic between London and New York. The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 thankfully didn’t cause loss of human life, but it did cost the global economy upwards of $US5 ($7) billion, as air traffic was widely disrupted.

The point of the new study, the researchers argue, is not to frighten people but to motivate preparedness and planning. Unlike the risks posed by gigantic volcanic eruptions, “where we have little opportunity for prevention, we can work to reduce the fragility and exposure of our critical systems to rapid-onset natural events, and ultimately increase our resilience to [global catastrophic risks],” write the researchers.

Of course, getting people to pay attention to this paper, whether they’re at the top levels of government or at the grassroots level, presents a daunting challenge. We collectively seem to suck at stuff like this and only respond when disasters are all but imminent, if not already unfolding in front of our stupid faces.