Even small volcanic eruptions can create global chaos | World Weekly
in spring 2010, Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland kabomedSending a cloud of ash into European airspace. The resulting disruption to air travel (ash + engines = bad) was the largest on the continent since World War II, costing an estimated $5 billion.
However, the collapse of Eyjafjallajökull . was Moderate, as classified by volcanologists. Its “volcanic eruption index” – which is based on the size of ejecta such as ash and rock – was number 4. Compare that to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which got a number of 7: it blasted so much material into the atmosphere that it cooled planet, resulting in widespread crop failure. In the Philippines, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo was 6. It cost $740 million in economic effects (adjusted for inflation), although it was 100 times larger than Eyjafjallajökull.
In a new paper published today in the journal Nature ConnectionsA team of researchers says that Eyjafjallajökull was a warning, and that small eruptions could be ideally positioned to cause huge urban misery. This is not because it causes many deaths, but because it can lead to the destruction of valuable infrastructure such as submarine cables and shipping channels. (As the world learned recently, just suspending one ship in the Suez Canal is a collapse in itself.)
Researchers have identified seven major “pressure points”, where critical infrastructure is located alongside active volcanoes with the potential for low-volume eruption. An explosion between any of them could lead to a devastating chain of economic impacts, just as Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air travel. “I kept thinking, they’re all in the same places – all these systems converge,” says social volcanologist Lara Mani, of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (imagine their water cooler) at the University of Cambridge, “They’re all in the same places – all these systems converge,” the lead author on the new paper. “And this is terrifying. Why has no one mentioned this before?”
One point is located in Taiwan, which is home to major computer chip manufacturers; Their critical importance in everything from iPhones to cars is becoming abundantly clear in the current (non-volcanic) shortage of chips. The other is located in the south, between Taiwan and the Philippines. The Luzon Strait is loaded with undersea cables, nine of which were cut by underwater landslides in the aftermath of the 2006 earthquake, almost completely cutting off the internet. And at the Sino-Korean narrow point, volcanic ash could disrupt some of the world’s busiest air routes, as well as shipping in the Sea of Japan.
In Malaysia, the Strait of Malacca is a weak point because it is also an important shipping route, with 40 percent of world trade passing through this route annually. The same goes for another area in the Mediterranean: this area is home to Mount Vesuvius, Santorini, and Campi Flegrei, which can produce an eruption between 3 and 6 on the volcanic eruption index. The authors note that tsunamis caused by volcanoes here can break underwater cables, disable ports, and close the Suez Canal. When a ship was stuck there for just six days in March, it cost global trade as much as $10 billion. Now, imagine a tsunami taking it offline for a while longer.
Thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, we’ve already seen what happens when ash falls over the North Atlantic pinch point. Finally, in the Pacific Northwest, the threat is volcanic debris that can flow so far and can reach Seattle. The authors note that about 5,600 years ago, Mount Rainier produced a mudflow that traveled more than 60 miles to reach Puget Sound and what is now the busy port of Tacoma. Modeling suggests that if the volcano produces a level 6 eruption today, the total potential losses could be $7.6 trillion more than five years.