In the spring of 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano kaboomed, sending a cloud of ash into European airspace. The resulting disruption in air travel (ash + engines = bad) was the largest on the continent since World War II, costing an estimated $5 billion.
Yet, Eyjafjallajokull was moderate as volcanologists define it. On the “volcanic explosivity index“–which is based on the volume of ejecta like ash and rock–it was a 4. Compare that to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which gets a 7: It blasted so much material into the atmosphere that it cooled the planet, leading to widespread crop failures. In the Philippines, Mount Pinatubo‘s 1991 eruption was a 6. The economic impact of the eruption was estimated at $740 million (adjusted to inflation) even though it cost 100 times more than Eyjafjallajokull.
A team of scientists has published a paper in Nature Communications today arguing that Eyjafjallajokull is a warning and that small eruptions could cause great civil unrest. They can cause widespread destruction of important infrastructure such as shipping lines and undersea cables, which is not why they are so deadly. (As the world recently learned, just getting a single ship stuck in the Suez Canal is a meltdown in its own right.)
Researchers identified seven “pinch points” that are critical infrastructure and active volcanoes, with potential for low-magnitude eruptions. A volcanic eruption could cause devastating economic consequences, much like Eyjafjallajokull did to air travel. Lara Mani (social volcanologist at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, imagine their water cooler chatter), who is the lead author of the paper, said, “I just kept thinking. They’re all there in the same places-all of these system converge.” It’s scary. “Why hasn’t anyone mentioned it before?”
One pinch point is in Taiwan, which is home to major manufacturers of computer chips; their critical importance in everything from iPhones to cars has become abundantly clear in the current (non-volcanically-induced) chip shortage. The Philippines and Taiwan are another example. Nine of the Luzon Strait’s undersea cables were damaged by an underwater earthquake in 2006. This caused near total internet outages. At the Chinese-Korean pinch, volcanic ash may disrupt the most important air routes around the globe, as well as shipping through the Sea of Japan.
The Strait of Malacca in Malaysia is considered a pinch point due to its importance as a shipping route. Around 40% of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca annually. Another example in the Mediterranean is Mount Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei. All three could cause volcanic eruptions ranging from a 3 to a 6. According to the authors, a tsunami caused by volcanic eruptions could cause damage to underwater cables and disrupt shipping routes, as well as seal off the Suez Canal. Global trade lost up to $10 million when a ship was stuck in the Suez Canal for six days during March. Imagine a tsunami removing it from the ocean for longer.
We have seen what happens to the North Atlantic pinch points thanks to Eyjafjallajokull. Finally, volcanic debris could be threatening the Pacific Northwest. It could possibly reach Seattle. According to the authors, Mount Rainier produced a mudflow over 60 miles from Puget Sound around 5,600 years back. This mudflow was then transported by the now busy Port of Tacoma. Modelling shows that potential losses of $7.6 trillion could result from a volcano erupting at level 6. This would be in five years.
Mani says that these pinch points are areas of high vulnerability. They are crucial. Without them, there will be severe consequences.” Losing undersea cables can result in the loss of vital communication for an economy. The supply chain of electronics is affected if you lose manufacturing plants for chip production. The supply chain for all further degrades if you lose shipping routes.
They aren’t saying that large volcanic eruptions should be ignored. These can cause serious health problems for those living near them. They don’t say that every small eruption of volcanic activity should be considered. Mani says, “We are not talking about every single eruption of lower magnitude.” It’s an eruption of low magnitude that is located near a pinch point.
Two time scales are used by volcanologists to predict when an eruption is likely. They can use data from previous eruptions to predict when the next one will occur. For warnings about impending eruptions, they can monitor the seismic activity. They can use both to estimate the likelihood of an eruption occurring in the next century. However, they are also able to save lives when they have to summon immediate evacuations.
The only thing that volcanologists cannot do is to protect the infrastructure of the planet from large-scale and minor eruptions. “Scientists can make a forecast, can provide some indication about what is possible,” says University of Naples volcanologist Warner Marzocchi, who studies volcanic threats to society but wasn’t involved in this new paper. Scientists may be able to suggest things, but we might also not know the exact cost of having backup.
Scientists are building a more sophisticated picture now of how disruption to supply and economic chains could occur from the volcanic area to other parts of the globe. Marzocchi says, “I hope this paper encourages volcanologists not just to consider the immediate impact of an eruption,” but all that could happen in the future.”
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Publited Fri, 06 August 2021 at 09:21:05 +0000