Even Small Volcanic Eruptions Could Create Global Chaos

The spring 2010 saw Iceland's Eyjafjallajkull volcano eruption, sending a cloud ash into European airspace. It caused the biggest disruption to air travel in Europe since World War II (ash + engines = bad), and cost an estimated $5 billion.Yet, Eyjafjallajkulls melting was mild, as volcanologists call it. The volcanic explosivity index, which is based on the volume ejecta such as ash and rocks, was a 4. This is compared to the 1815 eruption at Mount Tambora, Indonesia, which got a 7. It blasted so many materials into the atmosphere that it caused widespread crop failures. The Philippines' Mount Pinatubos 1991 eruption was a 6. It had economic effects of $740 million (adjusted to inflation) even though it was 100x larger than Eyjafjallajkull.A team of researchers argue that Eyjafjallajkull is a warning and that small eruptions can cause great civil unrest. They can cause widespread destruction of infrastructure such as shipping routes and undersea cables, which is why they are not fatal. (As the world learned recently, just one ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal can cause a major meltdown.Researchers identified seven major pinch points where infrastructure is critical and active volcanoes are at risk of erupting. A volcanic eruption could cause devastating economic consequences, much like Eyjafjallajkull did to air travel. They're all in the exact same place, I thought. According to Lara Mani (social volcanologist at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk), which is the lead author of the paper, this convergence occurs. That's scary. This is why no one has ever mentioned it before.One pinch point is in Taiwan, which is home to major manufacturers of computer chips; their critical importance in everything from iPhones to cars has become abundantly clear in the current (non-volcanically-induced) chip shortage. The Philippines and Taiwan are another example. Nine of the Luzon Strait's undersea cables were damaged by underwater landslides in 2006, resulting in near-total internet blackouts. At the Chinese-Korean pinch, volcanic ash could cause disruption to some of the busiest international air routes, as well as shipping in the Sea of Japan.The Strait of Malacca in Malaysia is a crucial shipping route. It is used by 40 percent of the world's trade each year. Another example in the Mediterranean is Mount Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei. All three could cause volcanic eruptions ranging from a 3 to a 6. According to the authors, a tsunami caused by volcanic eruptions could cause damage to underwater cables, disruption of ports and even seal off the Suez Canal. Global trade lost up to $10 billion when a ship was stuck there for six days in March. Imagine a tsunami removing it from the ocean for longer.We have seen what happens to the North Atlantic pinch point thanks to Eyjafjallajkull. Finally, volcanic debris could be threatening the Pacific Northwest. It could possibly reach Seattle. According to the authors, Mount Rainier produced a mudflow over 60 miles from Puget Sound around 5,600 years ago. This mudflow was then transported to what is now known as the Port of Tacoma. Modelling shows that potential losses of $7.6 trillion could result from a level 6 volcano eruption in five years.