the world is not at all ready for the next super-eruption

Researchers are sounding the alarm and recalling that the risk of a catastrophic super-eruption is largely underestimated.

Asteroids or solar flares, to name a few, represent existential threats that could change the face of our civilization in the blink of an eye; it is enough to take an interest in the fate of the dinosaurs or the Carrington event to find out for sure.

But there are other even more concrete dangers, and there is not necessarily a need to scan space to spot them; they may be right under our noses, right on Earth. We can obviously mention pandemics. But geologists wanted to recall another element that humanity tends to underestimate: volcanoes.

The latter are anything but rare; the Earth is traversed from end to end, and a large part of them is still active. A volcanic eruption is therefore not unusual. Most of them do not even represent a direct threat to populations.

But in some specific cases, the picture can be very different; some volcanoes could give rise to cataclysmic eruptions, liable to disfigure our planet forever – with all the consequences that one can imagine for humanity.

Hunga Tonga, a well-deserved booster shot

We were reminded of this eventuality again recently, during the massive eruption of Hunga Tonga in the Tonga archipelago on January 14 – the largest of the 21st century. The consequences of this event were terrible for the local population.

The submarine cables were severed, which cut communications in the archipelago for several days. Agriculture, fishing and infrastructure in general were also damaged by the ash fall which covered everything for hundreds of kilometers around. Tsunamis have even been documented in Japan and America.

The eruption of Hunga Tonga in January 2022 has already had catastrophic consequences…and Earth has far worse in store. © NASA Earth Observatory / Joshua Stevens / NOAA / NESDIS

Fortunately, the eruption only lasted about ten hours, and the most catastrophic scenarios could be avoided. Had it been longer, the consequences could have been much worse, with global repercussions on communications, supply chains, health and climate.

But it would be unconscious to think that humanity is now out of the woods. In a comment published in the prestigious newspaper Naturegeologists insisted that this warning shot was not an isolated case.

Super-eruptions, a threat too often minimized

Based on readings taken in ice caps, they were able to determine that these events were much more frequent than previously thought. They explain that by the end of the century, humanity has approximately 1 in 6 chance of experiencing a 7 in 8 magnitude eruption – 10 to 100 times more powerful than that of Tonga. This means that we are much more likely to experience a super-eruption than the impact of a huge asteroid.

However, eruptions of this kind have already caused radical changes in the climate and led to the downfall of entire civilizations. And despite this well-documented reality, humanity has done next to nothing to limit the impact”abrupt and immense” of such an event if it occurred today.

Admittedly, research has made great progress; the most threatening volcanoes today are watched like milk on fire. But remains that in the state, the finding is about the same as for the most violent solar flares (see our article); we couldn’t do almost nothing to protect critical sectors such as agri-food, transport, trade, finance, energy or communications… while political decision-makers have nevertheless devoted hundreds of millions to defense against asteroids – a fairly anecdotal threat in comparison .

erupting volcano
© Piermanuele Sberni

Prevention is better, but you also have to know how to cure

“This must change”, hammer the researchers in their publication. They explain that it will absolutely be necessary to multiply efforts on several very important fronts. To begin with, they explain that it is fundamental toincrease research work around active volcanoes to improve our ability to predict eruptions.

The authors take this opportunity to remind us that it is high time to deploy a satellite, or even a constellation of probes entirely devoted to the exclusive monitoring of volcanoes. At present, there is still no object of this kind, which seems simply aberrant in our time when aerospace progresses very quickly.

They also suggest exploring the trail of large scale volcanic geoengineering to control the behavior of volcanoes. It still sounds like science fiction at the moment, but with such a large threat, all angles of attack must be considered.

Moreover, in view of the potential consequences, it would be very imprudent to stop at mere prevention; it will now have to be proactive. The authors want to encourage interdisciplinary research groups to work actively on these questions.

Doing the ostrich is useless. It is absolutely necessary to tackle the problem head-on, ask uncomfortable questions, and imagine the most catastrophic scenarios in order to propose solutions. Because if humanity is caught off guard by a cataclysm of this magnitude, there is a significant risk that it will never recover.

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