Minor volcanic eruptions could 'cascade' into global catastrophe, experts argue

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 public domainThe current thinking about volcano risks is based on a simple equation. The more likely an eruption occurs, the worse it will affect society and human welfare.Experts now argue that the focus on volcanic explosions is too narrow and not enough attention is given to the possible domino effects of minor eruptions in key areas of the planet.The University of Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, (CSER), has identified seven "pinchpoints" that are areas where small, but active volcanoes cluster alongside vital infrastructure. These could lead to catastrophic global consequences if they become paralyzed.These areas include volcanic groups in Taiwan, North Africa and the North Atlantic as well as the northern United States. Nature Communications published the report today.Dr. Lara Mani, CSER's lead author of this report, said that even a minor eruption could cause enough ash to generate enough tremors to disrupt financial and supply chain networks."At the moment calculations are too biased towards huge explosions or nightmare scenarios when the most likely risks come from moderate incidents that disable major international communication networks or transport hubs. This applies to extreme weather, earthquakes, and volcanic eruption.Mani and his colleagues claim that smaller eruptions ranked up to 6 on "volcanic explosive index" instead of the 7s or 8s that tend occupy catastrophist thoughtcould easily create ash clouds and mudflows that scupper underwater cables, leading to financial markets shutdowns or devastation crop yields, which can lead to political turmoil.The team cites recent events in Iceland as an example. A magnitude 4 eruption of the Eyjafjallajkull volcano occurred close to the "pinch point" on mainland Europe. Plumes of ash were carried by northwesterly winds to European airspace, at a cost estimated to be US$5 billion.However, Mount Pinatubo, a magnitude 6-eruptive volcano in the Philippines that erupted in 1991 was a much smaller event than the Icelandic one. Its distance from the vital infrastructure meant that the overall economic impact was less than one fifth of Eyjafjallajkull. If it happened in 2021, Pinatubo would have a worldwide economic impact of approximately US$740 millions.The experts identified seven areas that could be considered "pinch points" and where relatively minor eruptions could cause maximum global mayhem. These include the volcanic group at the northern tip Taiwan. The Port of Taipei is the world's largest producer of electronic chips. If this area and the Port of Taipei are both permanently incapacitated, then the global tech industry may come to an abrupt halt.The Mediterranean is another pinch point. Legends of the classical world like Santorini and Vesuvius could cause tsunamis to destroy submerged cable networks, causing the Suez Canal to be closed. Mani said that he witnessed the six-day Suez Canal closure in action earlier this year. A single container ship could have cost as much as ten billion dollars per week in global trade.Washington, the US state in the Pacific Northwest, could experience ash and mudflows that cover Seattle and shut down airports. The potential economic losses from a magnitude 6 eruption at Mount Rainier is predicted to exceed US$7 trillion in the next five years according to Scenario modeling.The Strait of Malacca is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. It links the highly active volcanoes along the Indonesian archipelago from Sumatra to Central Java. Each year, 40% of global trade passes through the narrow route.Another important shipping route is the Luzon Strait in South China Sea. It houses all major submerged cabling connecting China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as Japan, South Korea, and Japan. It is also surrounded by the Luzon Volcanic Arc.Researchers also identified the volcanic region that lies between the Chinese-North Korean border. These plumes of ash could disrupt the busiest routes in the east. They also pointed out that an eruption of Icelandic volcanoes in the west would cause the same.Mani said, "It's high time we change the way we see extreme volcanic risk." "We must stop thinking in terms colossal volcanic eruptions destroying the globe, as Hollywood movies portray. More likely scenarios include lower-magnitude eruptions that interact with our social vulnerabilities and lead to catastrophe.Continue reading Sea levels can influence volcanic island eruptionsFurther information: Nature Communications, (2021) Global catastrophic risk from low-magnitude volcanic eruptions. Information from Nature Communications Global catastrophic Risk from Low-Major Volcanic Eruptions, (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25021-8