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Minor volcanic eruptions could be the ones to watch out for

Experts in the field of risk analysis feel that too much attention is paid to preparing for Hollywood-style cataclysmic volcanic eruptions while the potential effects of minor eruptions could be more damaging if they occur in areas of sensitive infrastructure. 

A team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) have identified seven potential hotspots where small, active volcanoes are clustered together in the vicinity of key infrastructure such as communications or transport hubs. 

In the report, published today in the journal Nature Communications, the experts state that eruptions within these “pinch points” could cause domino effects with catastrophic consequences.

“Even a minor eruption in one of the areas we identify could erupt enough ash or generate large enough tremors to disrupt networks that are central to global supply chains and financial systems,” said study lead author Dr Lara Mani.

According to Dr. Mani and colleagues, even smaller eruptions measuring up to 6 on the “volcanic explosivity scale” have the power to cause ash clouds, landslides and mudflows that could impact on transport systems, crop production and international communications. Minor eruptions could also put food security at risk and potentially disable communication.

The team refers to the 2010 volcanic eruption in Iceland as an example. After a magnitude 4 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, wind blew plumes of ash towards mainland Europe. This led to the closure of European airspace at a cost of US$5 billion to the global economy. 

By comparison, in 1991, a magnitude 6 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines caused less than a fifth of the economic damage produced by Eyjafjallajökull because of the volcano’s distance from vital infrastructure. 

The pinch point regions identified in the study include volcanic groups in Taiwan, the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Indonesian archipelago, the North Atlantic, and the northwestern United States. 

The Luzon volcanic arc, for example, stretches from Taiwan through the Philippines to the island of Luzon. Even minor eruptions in these smaller volcanoes could disrupt shipping in the South China Sea and disturb major undersea cabling that connects China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. In addition, Taiwan is one of the largest producers of electronic chips, without which the global tech industry would be paralyzed.

The researchers conclude that more attention needs to be focused on preparations for the less spectacular – but potentially more devastating – consequences of minor eruptions in these hotspot areas.

“It’s time to change how we view extreme volcanic risk,” said Dr. Mani. “We need to move away from thinking in terms of colossal eruptions destroying the world, as portrayed in Hollywood films. The more probable scenarios involve lower-magnitude eruptions interacting with our societal vulnerabilities and cascading us towards catastrophe.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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