Guest pondering by David Middleton
NEWS 06 MARCH 2018
Volcanologists warn world is unprepared for next major eruption
A big blast could hobble global trade, communications and financial systems.
The world needs to do more to prepare for the next huge volcanic eruption, a team of leading scientists says.
The devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the Tōhoku earthquake in Japan in 2011 highlighted some of the worst-case scenarios for natural disasters. But humanity has not had to deal with a cataclysmic volcanic disaster since at least 1815, when the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia killed tens of thousands of people and led to a ‘year without a summer’ in Europe and North America. Such world-altering blasts rank at 7 or more on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) scale of eruptions, which goes to 8.
“The next VEI-7 eruption could occur within our lifetimes, or it could be hundreds of years down the road,” says Chris Newhall, a volcanologist with the Mirisbiris Garden and Nature Center in Santo Domingo, Philippines. But the time to have this discussion is now, he says, so that researchers and government officials can plan and prepare before an emergency strikes.
Newhall is the lead author of a paper published last week in Geosphere1 that explores the potential consequences of the next VEI-7 eruption. His co-authors are volcanologist Stephen Self of the University of California, Berkeley — with whom Newhall devised the VEI scale2 in 1982 — and Alan Robock, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Newhall’s team says that researchers should start to prepare for a VEI-7 eruption by studying potential effects on crucial communications links — such as how atmospheric moisture and volcanic ash can interfere with global positioning system signals. Others could work to improve their understanding of how large amounts of magma accumulate and erupt, helping scientists to forecast where the next VEI-7 event might occur.
The researchers already have a long list of candidate volcanoes that might be capable of a VEI-7 blast. They include Taupo in New Zealand, site of the world’s last VEI-8 eruption — 26,500 years ago — and Iran’s Mount Damavand, which lies just 50 kilometres from Tehran.
The Nature article is actually longer and more informative than the Newhall et al. Geosphere1 article:
Specifically, we focus on Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) 7 eruptions, which occur 1–2 times per thousand years.
We suggest and apply criteria to identify candidates for future VEI 7 eruptions, and discuss likely challenges for short-range forecasting of such events. Preparation for such low-probability but high-consequence events is difficult to imagine…
Yes. It is very difficult to imagine how to prepare for the global impacts of low probability geophysical hazards if the timing and locations of such events are all but impossible to forecast until the eruptions are imminent. Cataloging and monitoring volcanoes capable of VEI 7 and greater eruptions is a good idea. But… serious question: How could anyone actually prepare for the global effects of a VEI 7 eruption?
The Nature article linked to a couple of other interesting articles by Ms. Wiste:
Each article included a cool graphic:
The fact that none of the massive Yellowstone eruptions made the cut provides some context to how truly massive these eruptions were.
The take-away from this graphic is: Don’t live near stratovolcanoes, particularly if they have histories of generating nuée ardente (pyroclastic flows) and/or lahars (volcanic mudslides).
As a geologist, I’m all for monitoring active volcanic fields… But, I’m not sure I see how we could prepare for a massive eruption of any of these.
If and when Yellowstone pops off another Ultra-Plinian (>VEI 6) eruption, the best we can hope for is that we have the resources to clean up the mess…
Most people are probably unaware of the fact that Sunset Crater in the San Francisco volcanic field near Flagstaff AZ has erupted within the past 1,000 years, that the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in NE New Mexico was active as recently as 45,000 years ago or that Los Alamos National Laboratory NM sits just north of a still-active mini-Yellowstone (Valles Caldera). These volcanic fields are not monitored.
Massive caldera-forming volcanoes like Long Valley and Yellowstone are the volcanic equivalent of an ARkStorm flood. Very few have occurred in human history. Of the 22 identified VEI 8 eruptions, none have occurred during the Holocene. The most recent, Taupo Volcano in New Zealand, occurred 24,500 years ago. Of the 128 identified VEI 7 eruptions, only 10 occurred during the Holocene and only 3 during the most recent 2,000 years.
There is a long observational history with volcanoes like Mount St. Helens, Vesuvius, Aetna, Montserrat, etc. It’s possible to predict eruptions with sufficient accuracy to order evacuations. We have no idea how much warning we will have of a major eruption of Yellowstone or Long Valley. No one has witnessed one of these types of eruptions in recorded history. There really aren’t any benchmarks for when to order an evacuation. It’s essential that these volcanoes be closely monitored… But, I don’t think there’s much we can do to prepare for or even mitigate the effects of super-eruptions.
A Plinian or Ultra-Plinian eruption of Yellowstone would be really bad.
What do WUWT readers think? Is there a way to prepare for the global impacts of the next VEI 7+ eruption? Should tax dollars be spent on such preparation?