Every now and again Earth experiences tremendous explosive volcanic eruptions, considerably bigger than the largest witnessed in historic times. Those yielding more than 450 km3 of magma have been called super-eruptions. The record of such eruptions is incomplete; the most recent known example occurred 26 000 years ago. It is more likely that the Earth will next experience a super-eruption than an impact from a large meteorite greater than 1 km in diameter. Depending on where the volcano is located, the effects will be felt globally or at least by a whole hemisphere. Large areas will be devastated by pyroclastic flow deposits, and the more widely dispersed ash falls will be laid down over continent-sized areas. The most widespread effects will be derived from volcanic gases, sulphur gases being particularly important. This gas is converted into sulphuric acid aerosols in the stratosphere and layers of aerosol can cover the global atmosphere within a few weeks to months. These remain for several years and affect atmospheric circulation causing surface temperature to fall in many regions. Effects include temporary reductions in light levels and severe and unseasonable weather (including cool summers and colder-than-normal winters). Some aspects of the understanding and prediction of super-eruptions are problematic because they are well outside modern experience. Our global society is now very different to that affected by past, modest-sized volcanic activity and is highly vulnerable to catastrophic damage of infrastructure by natural disasters. Major disruption of services that society depends upon can be expected for periods of months to, perhaps, years after the next very large explosive eruption and the cost to global financial markets will be high and sustained.
One contribution of 20 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Extreme natural hazards’.
- © 2006 The Royal Society