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Scientists have warned the world needs to be better prepared as there is a one in six chance of a massive volcanic eruption happening this century.
The warning comes following the eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai volcano in Tonga in January, which resulted in the biggest explosion ever recorded by instruments and dropped ash across hundreds of kilometres spreading from the volcano.
The eruption affected infrastructure, agriculture and fish stocks and caused damage amounting to 18.5 percent of Tonga's gross domestic product - the total value of goods produced and services provided in one year.
Michael Cassidy, associate professor of volcanology at the University of Birmingham, and Lara Mani, research associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, expressed relief over the fact the eruption stopped after 11 hours, noting in Nature that if it had gone on for longer it would have had 'repercussions for supply chains, climate and food resources worldwide'.
If such an event were to happen again, the researchers warn the world is 'woefully unprepared'. An analysis of ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica by a team at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen revealed magnitude-7 events happen about once every 625 years, and magnitude-8 events about once every 14,300 years.
In that case, the team determined the probability of an eruption with a magnitude of 7 - 10 or 100 times larger than Tonga - happening this century is one in six.
Previously, eruptions of this size have caused abrupt climate change and the collapse of civilisations, and have been associated with the rise of pandemics, the scientists explain.
We want use this paper to call for more investment from funders (governments etc), to aid conversations we’re already having with policymakers, UN bodies, humariatarian orgs (e.g. @ifrc ) and researchers from other disciplines to take large volcanic risk more seriously— Mike Cassidy (@MikeVolc) August 17, 2022
Such an eruption in the future could impact transport, food, water, trade, finance and communication, but in spite of this threat, there has been a lack of investment in safeguarding against large-scale eruptions.
"In September, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will try to nudge an asteroid’s trajectory, testing capabilities for future asteroid deflection. That advance-preparation project will cost over $300 million (£249.2m). By contrast, there is no coordinated action, nor large-scale investment, to mitigate the global effects of large-magnitude eruptions. This needs to change," Cassidy and Mani wrote in Nature.
The researchers recommend using improved ground-based monitoring of known active volcanoes to help prepare for an eruption, and establishing real-time communication with impacted communities to help them respond to disasters.
The last magnitude-7 event was in Indonesia in 1815, and after the eruption in Tonga Cassidy and Mani stressed 'discussions must start now'.
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