Even Minor Volcanic Eruptions Could Cause Global Catastrophe, Study Finds

Eruptions at key locations could be catastrophic for critical infrastructure—destabilizing trade and currencies, and triggering mass migrations.
August 6, 2021, 1:00pm
Even Minor Volcanic Eruptions Could Cause Global Catastrophe, Study Finds
Image: Anadolu Agency / Contributor via Getty Images

Visions of volcanic disaster typically have massive, apocalyptic dimensions; think Pompeii or Dante's Peak. Now, however, University of Cambridge researchers have identified seven regions where even small, active volcanoes pose an underestimated risk to our global infrastructure. 

In a new report published in Nature Communications on Thursday, interdisciplinary researchers from Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) report identifying seven “pinch points” where seemingly minor-risk volcanoes endanger infrastructure that is vital to our global economy. Indeed, even minor eruptions at these points could destabilize global currencies and trade, cause climate anomalies, and trigger mass migrations, according to the study. 

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The report notes that previous volcanic risk research typically correlates global impact with large-scale volcanic eruptions with a high volcanic explosivity index (VEI) of seven to eight. These events are relatively rare, however, and the paper instead focuses on volcanoes with a VEI of three to six. 

“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 lead author Dr. Lara Mani in a release. 

The scientists compared the potential impact of these pinch points to the fallout from the Suez Canal’s closing this past March. A stranded container ship blocked the major trade passageway, resulting in weeks of delays for industries across the world. The six day closure is estimated to have cost between $6-10 billion a week in global trade. 

Researchers identified a pinch point in the Luzon Strait, a shipping passageway located between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea, that could pose a risk to trade and global communications. Volcanically-induced landslides and tsunamis could damage submarine communication cables in the area.

The world has already experienced the effects of a natural disaster at this pinch point. A 2006 earthquake off the south-west coast of Taiwan in the Strait of Luzon severed several submarine cables in the area, resulting in severe internet outages. According to the paper, a volcanic eruption would have a similar effect: communications were nearly completely disabled for up to 80 percent of Hong Kong which also impacted the global financial market. It took 49 days to restore power in its aftermath. 

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Another pinch point is the Tatun Volcanic Group located on the northern tip of Taiwan. An eruption there could trigger the closure of transportation passageways such as the Port of Taipei, which directly supplies the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation. TSMC is Asia’s most valuable company and one of the leading suppliers of advanced chips and nodes for global technology and car industries. 

Eruptions at other pinch points, namely at the Chinese-North Korean border and in the North Atlantic, could disrupt busy air routes between major cities. Scientists estimated that a VEI six eruption at Mount Merapi in Indonesia could disrupt aerial routes in Asia, triggering a $2.51 trillion global loss over five years. 

Mani strongly believes that measures can still be taken to mitigate these risks. “The first thing is by acknowledging that risk is systemic, it's not just a siloed thing,” she told Motherboard. “Humanity kind of prioritizes efficiency over resilience, and as a result, makes ourselves more vulnerable.”

These new findings show that volcanic risk assessment requires a more nuanced approach to understanding the circumstances that could turn a moderate volcanic eruption into a global catastrophic risk, the researchers say.

“It’s time to change how we view extreme volcanic risk,” Mani said in the press release. “We need to move away from thinking in terms of colossal eruptions destroying the world, as portrayed in Hollywood films.”