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About to blow: Are we ready for the next volcanic catastrophe?

Researchers in the United Kingdom warn massive volcanic eruptions could be a more imminent threat than we think.

(CN) — Knowing the history of tragedies like Pompeii, Krakatoa or Mount St. Helens, volcanic eruptions, of all the natural disasters, might seem to be the most inescapable. But don’t lose hope just yet.

Despite proof that the volcanic threat may be more significant than previously suggested, scientists say if we act now, we might be able to properly prepare for and minimize the devastating effects of eruption.

Researchers Michael Cassidy and Lara Mani with the University of Cambridge emphasize in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature that ignoring the potential threat of volcanic eruption means that when it happens, we will be completely underprepared, unless we begin mitigating efforts now.

By studying historical records of sulfate spikes, caused by gases released during volcanic activity, as well as ice cores from the North and South poles, researchers were able to determine that large-scale volcanic eruptions were actually more frequent than previously thought.

“Data gathered from ice cores on the frequency of eruptions over deep time suggests there is a one-in-six chance of a magnitude-7 explosion in the next 100 years. That’s a roll of the dice,” said Mani, a global risk expert and researcher with Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), in a press release.

A magnitude-7 explosion, the study explains, would be 10 to 100 times larger than the January 2022 eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, an undersea volcano near Tonga. The eruption was the biggest ever recorded by instruments and should serve as a lesson for our lack of readiness, according to the researchers.

Such massive eruptions would have far-reaching impacts that could exacerbate ongoing global issues in our climate and environment, and even affect worldwide trade.

Aside from the damage caused from lava flow, tsunamis and accumulation of ash and debris in the immediate aftermath of a volcanic eruption, weather, rainfall and temperatures would also destabilize. With global climate already reaching its breaking point from the release of manmade greenhouse gases, the extra strain caused by a natural disaster would be devastating.

“Thanks to changes in ocean and atmospheric circulation caused by climate change, a large-magnitude eruption in the tropics could cause 60% more cooling in the next century compared with today,” the study explained.

Cassidy and Mani also refer to possible sociopolitical and economic impacts of natural disasters such as volcanic eruption. A 1918 Indonesian eruption caused an estimated 100,000 fatalities on the islands themselves, while globally, decreased crop yields caused by lowered temperatures from sulfur released into the atmosphere led to famines that then prompted political upheaval and disease epidemics.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how international trade and commerce can be intensely altered by outside forces. The eruption in Tonga was a close call for global infrastructure – any longer or larger, or closer to more densely populated areas, and the explosion could have caused disruption in shipping routes and electricity grids.

Despite the demonstrable international impacts and probability that the world could be on the verge of volcanic catastrophe, there is relatively little investment into crisis management for eruptions. The study claims that “over the next century, large-scale volcanic eruptions are hundreds of times more likely to occur than are asteroid and comet impacts, put together.”

Yet, preparedness for volcanic eruptions falls to the wayside of planetary defense. The study compares the hundreds of millions of dollars and multiple international agencies dedicated to NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) program to the complete lack of any widely coordinated efforts in volcano research or global policy for affected communities. The researchers suggest that we ought to match the energy poured toward preventing potential disasters coming from space and begin to devote some time dealing in terrestrial matters.

There may not be a global priority on volcanic threats, but volcanologists are still working to do as much as they can to help prevent another Pompeii or Mount St. Helens.  The study explores the concept of geoengineering to more directly prevent volcanic threats.

"It could also be theoretically possible to minimize the global volcanic winter effect from large eruptions, by speeding up the removal of sulfur aerosols (which reflect solar radiation and cool the earth) in the upper atmosphere. This could have some collateral negative impacts, so we need much research on this unexplored topic before we get even close to deploying this strategy!" said Cassidy, currently a professor of vulcanology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, in an email interview with Courthouse News.

Cassidy and Mani use their publication to call for investment in further research into predicting and monitoring volcanic activity, as well as improving critical infrastructure and increasing resources for crisis preparedness.  

Researchers stress that specific regions will be more vulnerable to volcanic threats. Programs to increase awareness and education could lead to more successful evacuations and health care responses. Building up critical infrastructure in at-risk communities would go a long way toward ensuring those communities wouldn’t be left stranded after an eruption.

"We suggest in the event of an eruption, large loss of life could be averted regionally if we provide real-time information on people’s devices (so called now-casting), providing geographically targeted advice about which regions to move to, how to protect themselves from roof collapse from falling ash, and other hazards such as mudflows," said Cassidy.

The study also states that there needs to be more comprehensive interdisciplinary research done to develop a system to help map out potentially risky volcanoes. Beyond more volcano research, the scientists also call for improved monitoring systems to be put in place.

"Predicting volcanic eruptions is based mostly on ground-based techniques such as seismometers (measuring earthquakes), ground tilting, gas chemistry, but in the past few decades volcanologists have made great progress with using satellite and other remotely sensors to detect in the ground is moving (e.g. bulging), which often happens before eruptions," explained Cassidy. "These techniques can normally tell is if the volcano will erupt, and sometimes when, but we’re still not great at being able to tell how large or violent (i.e. explosive) the eruption will be- this needs to improve."

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