Cumbre Vieja outbreak on La Palma
Photo: Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images
Smoking volcanoes are part of everyday life for many people on earth - for example in Hawaii, in Indonesia or in Central America.
But some volcanoes worry experts.
This also includes the Phlegraean Fields in the immediate vicinity of Mount Vesuvius and the city of Naples in Italy.
This area is even called a super volcano, it is one of the regions with the highest volcanic risk in the world.
An outbreak would have devastating consequences not only for Naples and Italy.
A similarly high risk also emanates from volcanoes such as Yellowstone in the USA or Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.
Experts from the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge and the University of Birmingham are now warning that a massive volcanic eruption could plunge the world into a crisis of a similar magnitude to the corona pandemic.
In a paper published in the journal Nature, they urge people to take the danger seriously and invest more money in observing volcanoes and preparing for emergencies.
The world is woefully unprepared for a massive volcanic eruption and the likely consequences for global supply chains, climate and food, it said.
According to the scientists, there is a one-sixth chance of an eruption of magnitude 7 or greater (the Volcanic Explosivity Index has eight levels) in 100 years.
The analysis of sulfur concentrations in ice cores showed that such eruptions statistically occur every 625 years.
In the past, eruptions of this magnitude have triggered abrupt climate changes and the collapse of entire civilizations, warned risk expert Lara Mani from the CSER, according to a statement.
She compares the climatic consequences of a massive volcanic eruption with the impact of an asteroid one kilometer in diameter on Earth.
Although the combined risk of an asteroid or comet colliding with Earth is only one-hundredth that of a massive volcanic eruption, far more money is spent on observing asteroids than on studying volcanoes, the researchers say.
“That urgently needs to change.
We massively underestimate the risk for our societies from volcanoes,” said Mani.
According to the researchers, the outbreak on the South Sea island of Tonga in January of this year should serve as a wake-up call.
Had it lasted longer, emitted more ash and gas, or taken place in a region with more critical infrastructure, the consequences would have been devastating, the scientists say.
Fire at Tambora - the year without a summer
The last magnitude 7 eruption occurred in Indonesia in 1815 and had dramatic climatic consequences that were also felt in Europe, leading to famine, violent riots and epidemics.
The year 1816, which followed the eruption of the Tambora volcano, is also known as the »year without a summer«.
'We live in a world now with eight times the population and forty times the trade of then.
Our complex networks could make us even more sensitive to the shocks of a large eruption,” said co-author Mike Cassidy, a University of Birmingham volcanologist.
The experts hope to remedy the situation by better monitoring volcanic activity and researching methods to mitigate eruptions and their consequences.
For example, they call for a satellite that is only intended for monitoring volcanic activity.
The researchers warn that there could be dozens of dangerous volcanoes still unknown to mankind, particularly in regions hitherto neglected by science, such as Southeast Asia.
Less than a third of volcanic eruptions since 1950 have had seismometers nearby to record ground vibrations, and again only a third of the data collected has been entered into a global database.
They also call for more research to be invested in geoengineering methods, for example to counteract aerosols emitted by volcanoes or to influence magma chambers under active volcanoes.
The risk of a massive outbreak devastating global society is significant, Mani said.
"The current lack of investment is just irresponsible," she said.