Supervolcanic eruptions are rarely mentioned when discussing global issues that threaten the continued existence of humanity on Earth. However, two researchers have found that this is precisely the case.
In a new study published in Nature, Michael Cassidy, a professor of volcanology at the University of Birmingham, and Lara Mani, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, explain that large-scale volcanic eruptions are hundreds of times more likely than asteroid impacts over the next century. However, the researchers claim that people aren’t doing enough to address this potential threat.
Case in point: asteroid collisions. Numerous space agencies have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to planetary defense initiatives so far. As part of a NASA experiment, a spacecraft may intentionally crash onto an asteroid. The idea is to understand how much the latter can shift in respect to what may be a solution in the future to modify the path of a dangerous asteroid.
It is the goal of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission to determine how much of a “deflection” an asteroid exhibits. The total cost of this endeavor is estimated to be around $ 330 million. Without a question, these are reasonable and appropriate expenditures, but as Cassidy and Mani point out, the same should be done to prepare for the possibility of supervolcano eruptions.
This isn’t like the regular volcanic outbursts we observe. When compared to these eruptions, all others pale in terms of energy emitted and impact on Earth. According to claims from ScienceAlert, which cites data from the US Geological Survey, the last big eruption happened roughly 22,000 years ago. An eruption of magnitude 8, the highest level on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, is considered a mega eruption (VEI).
The 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, for instance, was responsible for the deaths of over a hundred thousand people. The magnitude of such occurrence was measured at 7. The famed “year without summer” of 1816 was caused by the worldwide temperature drop of 1 degrees Celsius due to the eruption. The damage to the crops was extensive, and it set off a chain reaction that resulted in starvation and bloodshed in many parts of the globe.
Since 1815, both the human population and international relations have increased dramatically, making the disruptions caused by a repeat of the events of that year considerably more severe. Also, this is a magnitude 7 event, not an 8.
According to a Nature article from 2021, scientists looked examined ice cores from both Greenland and Antarctica. The study concluded that there were 97 episodes that occurred between 60,000 and 9,000 years ago that had climatic repercussions similar to those of an eruption of magnitude 7 or larger. The frequency of magnitude 7 super eruptions is estimated to be once every 625 years, while the frequency of magnitude 8 eruptions (super eruptions) is estimated to be once every 14,300 years.
There is still a lot we don’t know about super eruptions, and some people question our ability to detect them in time. The study authors recommend using not just ground monitoring, but also satellite observation and airborne observation systems. For this reason, a dedicated satellite to monitor volcanoes is required.