Humans have marveled at the incredible power of volcanoes for centuries. Earlier this month, tourists flocked to Iceland to watch lava flow from a fissure eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula. The so-called “land of fire and ice” saw a huge tourism boom after the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.
Despite their magnetic thrust, volcanic eruptions are a major threat to humanity. A study published yesterday in Nature from the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge and the University of Birmingham found that there is a general misconception of the lethal threat volcanoes pose to society and planet Earth in general According to authors Michael Cassidy and Laura Mani, this misconception has led to general apathy about preparing for a major eruption, even though it poses a greater risk than an asteroid strike.
The January eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano in Tonga was the largest explosion recorded by instruments. Ash spewed hundreds of miles across land and sea, affecting everything from infrastructure to fish stocks. The eruption damaged 36.4 percent of Tonga’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. The rupture of submarine cables cut off the nation’s communication in the South Pacific Ocean with the outside world for an entire month. It launched enough water to fill 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools into the stratosphere, and a shock wave sent tsunamis to Japanese and North American and South American coasts. All this devastation was caused by an eruption that lasted only 11 hours. If one more had happened, the repercussions on the climate, food resources and other infrastructure would have been catastrophic.
“The Tonga eruption was the volcanic equivalent of an asteroid just missing Earth and should be treated as a wake-up call,” Mani wrote.
This threat is not going away. Rashes are more common than researchers previously thought. Recent data from ice cores (long cylinders of glacial ice uncovered by drilling into a glacier or mountain) show that an eruption 10 to 100 times larger than Tonga’s occurs once every 625 years, or twice as often had previously been thought of. These events are classified in the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) which measures the explosiveness of volcanoes.
The world has not seen a magnitude 7 event since Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted in 1815. In the archipelago, an estimated 100,000 people lost their lives due to volcanic flows, tsunamis, damage from massive rocks, ash that destroyed crops and homes, and additional collateral damage. Globally, temperatures dropped by up to three degrees Fahrenheit, triggering what scientists and historians call the Year Without a Summer and great social effects. Massive harvest failures led to famine that led to uprisings and epidemics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those living near any active volcano should evacuate if prompted, shelter in place by sealing all doors and windows, and maintaining a disaster supply kit. At a more macro level, the study authors highlight the importance of real-time targeted communication of ash fall, gas plumes and volcanic flows. They post that faster messaging (preferably via text) could better prepare communities and aid in disaster relief.
The authors cite The Volcano Ready Communities Project in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as a recent success story. The project evacuated 22,000 people before an eruption in April 2021.
To better prevent further catastrophes, the CSER calls for more research into the “geoengineering” of volcanoes, including studying how to combat aerosols released by a massive eruption. These tiny particles can block the sun and lead to a ‘volcanic winter’. The CSER also encourages further debate on whether or not to investigate how to manipulate magma pockets beneath active volcanoes.
“Directly affecting volcanic behavior may seem inconceivable, but so did asteroid deflection until the formation of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office in 2016,” Mani wrote. “The risks of a massive eruption that devastates global society are significant. The current underinvestment to respond to this risk is simply reckless.”