The world is “woefully underprepared” for a huge volcanic eruption which could wipe out civilisation, a new study has warned.
There is a one in six chance of a massive magnitude seven eruption happening in the next century, according to research – which would have seismic consequences for the world’s supply chains, climate and food supply.
The University of Cambridge team said there was a ‘’major misconception’’ that the risk of major eruptions is low.
The effect of such a huge eruption would be similar to that of a 1km-wide asteroid hitting the Earth, but the chances of a massive eruption are a lot higher than the combined chances of an asteroid or comet collision.
However steps can be taken to stop complete devastation, including better surveillance, better public education and magma manipulation, the team added.
They claimed that not enough was being done to prepare for a huge volcanic eruption, despite hundreds of millions of pounds being pumped into preparation for an asteroid to hit Earth.
An eruption on the Pacific island of Tonga in January was the largest ever instrumentally recorded.
If it had gone on longer, released more gas or ash, or happened in an area near critical infrastructure, the consequences could have been devastating.
An eruption 10 to 100 times the size of the Tonga blast happens once every 625 years, twice as often as had previously been thought.
The last magnitude seven eruption happened in Indonesia in 1815.
It killed 100,000 people and caused global temperatures to drop by a degree – leading to crop failures that resulted in famine, violent uprisings and disease epidemics.
The hit to the economy would be in the trillions and comparable in size to the pandemic.
The researchers said to help prepare, we needed to know where massive eruptions could happen.
Over the past 60,000 years the locations of just a handful of the 97 eruptions classed as large magnitude on the “volcano explosivity index” have been identified, meaning there could be scores of extremely dangerous volcanoes around the world of which we have no clue.
Only 27 per cent of eruptions since 1950 have had a seismometer anywhere near them, and only a third of that data again has been fed into the global database for “volcanic unrest”, the team added.
The team now want to study how aerosols created by a massive eruption could be neutralised, and how pockets of magma underneath the Earth could be manipulated.
Study author Dr Lara Mani from the university’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk said: “Data gathered from ice cores on the frequency of eruptions over deep time suggests there is a one-in-six chance of a magnitude seven explosion in the next one hundred years. That’s a roll of the dice.
“Such gigantic eruptions have caused abrupt climate change and collapse of civilisations in the distant past.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into asteroid threats every year, yet there is a severe lack of global financing and coordination for volcano preparedness.
“This urgently needs to change. We are completely underestimating the risk to our societies that volcanoes pose.
“The Tonga eruption was the volcanic equivalent of an asteroid just missing the Earth, and needs to be treated as a wake-up call.
“Volcanologists have been calling for a dedicated volcano-monitoring satellite for over 20 years.
“Sometimes we have to rely on the generosity of private satellite companies for rapid imagery.
“The current underinvestment in responding to this risk is simply reckless.”
Study author Dr Mike Cassidy added: “The last magnitude seven eruption was in 1815 in Indonesia.
“We now live in a world with eight times the population and over forty times the level of trade.
“Our complex global networks could make us even more vulnerable to the shocks of a major eruption.
“We may not know about even relatively recent eruptions due to a lack of research into marine and lake cores, particularly in neglected regions such as Southeast Asia.
“Volcanoes can lie dormant for a long time, but still be capable of sudden and extraordinary destruction.”
The findings were published in the journal Nature.