Even if humanity manages not to self-destruct due to war or climate change, we must still prepare for other existential threats.
The planet was preloaded with many dangers long before we started piling up, some of which our species has barely experienced.
One of the more significant dangers comes from asteroids, such as the one suspected of destroying the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. As we try to predict our own doomsday, the cautionary tale of dinosaurs seems to suggest that we need to be more vigilant.
It makes sense that humans are preparing intelligently in ways that dinosaurs couldn’t, investing in asteroid monitoring and even deflection.
But as the two researchers point out in a new review in the journal naturewe shouldn’t let asteroid anxiety overshadow another huge danger lurking right under our noses: volcanoes.
Michael Cassidy, professor of volcanology at the University of Birmingham, and researcher Lara Mani, wrote: “The likelihood of a large-scale volcanic eruption over the next century is as many as the number of asteroid and comet impacts. 100 times.” Associate researcher at the Centre for Existential Risk Research at the University of Cambridge.
Cassidy and Mani argue that while it’s prudent to prepare for asteroids, we’re doing too little about more likely events like volcanic “super-eruptions.”
Governments and global agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on planetary defense, including a new U.S. experiment to fend off space rocks, they wrote.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will soon test the feasibility of asteroid deflection by attempting to move the asteroid out of orbit. The DART mission will cost about $330 million, and while it’s a bargain if it saves us from an asteroid, Cassidy and Mani point out that there is no comparable investment to prepare for a super-eruption.
“This needs to change,” they wrote.
Volcanoes may not be as exotic as fireballs from space, but that’s more reason to respect them: Unlike asteroids, volcanoes are already on Earth. They are scattered across the planet and are often overshadowed by picturesque landscapes that obscure their destructive potential.
While humans have witnessed many terrifying eruptions in modern times, most pale in comparison to the supervolcanoes that erupt every 15,000 years or so.
The last such supereruption occurred about 22,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. (A “super eruption” is a rating of 8, the highest possible rating on the Volcanic Eruption Index, or VEI.)
The last magnitude 7 eruption occurred in 1815 on Mount Tambora in Indonesia, killing an estimated 100,000 people.
The ash and smoke lowered global temperatures by about 1 degree Celsius on average, leading to the “Year Without Summer” in 1816. Crops have generally failed, leading to famine, disease outbreaks and violence.
Volcano monitoring has improved since 1815, as has our ability to garner global support for disaster relief, but not necessarily enough to offset all the risks we face now.
Cassidy and Manney point out that the Earth’s population has tripled since the early 1800s, and some large urban areas are blooming near dangerous volcanoes. We are also more reliant on global trade, so unrest in one place can trigger food shortages and other crises elsewhere.
The dangers posed by volcanoes may also be greater than we think. In a 2021 study based on data from ancient ice cores, researchers found that the interval between catastrophic eruptions is hundreds or even thousands of years shorter than previously thought.
The history of many volcanoes remains unclear, making it difficult to predict future eruptions and concentrate resources where the risk is highest. Cassidy and Mani write that we need more research on ice cores and historical and geological records, including ocean and lake cores, especially in high-risk but data-poor regions such as Southeast Asia.
We also need more interdisciplinary research to help us predict how supervolcanic eruptions might weaken civilization, they added, by identifying risks to trade, agriculture, energy and infrastructure, and that volcanic risks overlap with key trade networks geographical “key points”.
More comprehensive volcano monitoring is also critical, including ground-based monitoring as well as aerial and satellite observations. The researchers note that volcanologists have long longed for a dedicated volcano-observing satellite that could improve readiness beyond the current system of sharing existing satellites with other scientists.
A sense of community and education is another key to resilience. People need to know if they live in a volcanic danger zone, how to prepare for an eruption, and what to do when it happens.
In addition to preparatory publicity, authorities need ways to broadcast public alerts in the event of an eruption, such as text messages containing evacuation details, survival tips for eruptions or routes to shelters and medical facilities, Cassidy and Mani wrote.
Comments published in magazines nature.