(ORDO NEWS) — More needs to be done to predict and manage globally destructive volcanic eruptions. The risks are greater than people think.
The massive eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano this past January in Tonga, in the South Pacific, was the volcanic equivalent of a “close flyby” of an asteroid whizzing past Earth.
The eruption was the largest since the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 and the largest explosion ever recorded by instruments.
Ash fell for hundreds of kilometers, affecting infrastructure, agriculture and fish stocks. The damage caused amounted to 18.5% of Tonga’s gross domestic product.
Submarine cables were cut, cutting off Tong’s communications with the outside world for several days; in more remote areas, the explosion caused a worldwide shock wave and tsunami that reached the coasts of Japan, North and South America.
Fortunately, the eruption lasted only about 11 hours. Had it lasted longer, emitted more ash and gas, or occurred in more densely populated areas of Southeast Asia, or near vital shipping lanes, power grids or other critical global infrastructure, it would have implications for supply chains, climate and food resources in around the world1.
The world is completely unprepared for such an event. The Tongan eruption should be a wake-up call. The latest ice core data show a 1 in 62 chance of an eruption of magnitude 7 (10 or 100 times greater than Tonga) or higher this century. the rise of pandemics.
And yet, little investment has gone into limiting what an eruption of this magnitude can do. In our globally connected world, an eruption will have cascading effects on transportation, food, water, commerce, energy, finance, and communications.
Over the next century, large-scale volcanic eruptions are hundreds of times more likely than asteroids and comets combined4.
The climatic impact of these events is comparable, but the response to them is significantly different. Planetary Defense is funded by hundreds of millions of dollars annually and is handled by several global agencies.
In September, NASA‘s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will attempt to change an asteroid’s trajectory by testing the asteroid’s future deflection capabilities.
This pre-project project will cost over $300 million In contrast, there is no coordinated action or large-scale investment to mitigate the global effects of large-scale eruptions.This must change.
Although researchers have long known about the drastic consequences of large-scale volcanic eruptions, the likelihood of such an event has only recently been clarified.
The recurrence frequency of major eruptions can be determined by examining long-term records for sulfate spikes that are produced by the release of gas during globally significant events.
In 2021, researchers examined ice cores from both poles and found 1,113 signs of eruptions in the ice of Greenland and 737 in Antarctica between 60,000 and 9,000 years ago.
They found 97 events that likely had a climate impact equivalent to an eruption of magnitude 7 or more.
They concluded that magnitude 7 events occur about once every 625 years, and magnitude 8 events (also called supereruptions) about once every 14,300 years. This is more common than previous estimates – using geological records and statistical methods,
The last eruption of magnitude 7 occurred in Tambor, Indonesia in 1815. About 100,000 people died in the archipelago as a result of volcanic flows, tsunamis, heavy rock and ash falling on crops and houses, and subsequent consequences.
Globally, temperatures have fallen by an average of about 1°C, causing a “year without summer”. The eastern United States and much of Europe experienced massive crop failures, and the resulting famine led to violent uprisings and epidemics of disease.
Now the world is completely different. In some respects it is more resilient: volcanoes are better tracked, education and awareness are better, health and nutrition systems have improved. In other respects, the risks to humanity are increasing.
Due to changes in ocean and atmospheric circulation brought about by climate change, a large volcanic eruption in the tropics could cause 60% more cooling in the next century than today6.
The frequency of eruptions could also increase as geophysical forces on the planet’s surface shift due to ice melt, changes in precipitation and rising sea levels.
While the cooling effect of sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere may counteract the warming from greenhouse gases (the world is already about 1.1°C warmer than in the pre-industrial era), the impact of a major volcanic eruption will be abrupt and massive, with uneven effects on weather, precipitation and temperature .
The world’s population is now eight times what it was in 1800, and the trade on which it depends has grown more than 1,000 times since then.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the modern world is highly dependent on global trade in food, fuel and resources; a disaster in one place can lead to price spikes and shortages over a long distance.
Financial losses as a result of a large-scale eruption are estimated at several trillion, which is roughly comparable to the losses from the pandemic.
Given the estimated recurrence rate of a magnitude 7 eruption, this amounts to more than US$1 billion per year. Investing in crisis preparedness and mitigation will cost far less than responding to a disaster.
Scientists are calling for more attention and coordination of research aimed at forecasting, preparedness and mitigation.
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