Global catastrophic risk from smaller volcanic eruptions

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Taking into account an emerging and asymmetric volcanic hazard landscape, we highlight at least seven geographic locations, or pinch points, where convergence of one or more critical systems occurs, and delineate the particular GCR mechanism that each could cause. These seven pinch points, shown in Figure 2, identify the localities where we perceive the highest levels of criticality for the global systems and infrastructure they encompass (for example, sea passages with high traffic volumes that do not cannot be easily rerouted).

Fig. 2: Seven overall pinch points.

Map of regions or pinch points where the clustering of critical systems and infrastructure converges with regions of lower magnitude volcanic activity (volcanic explosive index 3-6). These pinch points are presented with the likely associated volcanic hazard activities in circles; where yellow is tephra / ash fallout, brown is submarine landslides, blue is tsunamis, and green is lahars. Each pinch point also includes potentially impacted systems, including air (A), maritime (M), commercial and transport networks (TT), and submarine cables (SMC).

Taiwanese pinch point

The Tatun Volcanic Group (TVG) is located at the northern tip of Taiwan and on the outskirts of the Taipei metropolis. This volcanic complex was historically active between 2.8 and 0.2 Ma; however, new evidence suggests it remained active, with frequent episodes of volcano-tectonic earthquakes12. Taiwan is home to TSMC’s main manufacturing hub, major producers of over 90% of the most advanced chips and nodes (equivalent to $ 18.9 billion in market share)13 and major suppliers to the global automotive and technology industry. An explosive volcanic eruption at TVG could blanket the area with thick deposits of tephra, forcing the shutdown of transportation networks, including the port of Taipei, critical to TSMC’s supply chain. The prolonged disruption of critical infrastructure such as the power grid that powers TSMC’s manufacturing plants could also severely disrupt the global supply of chips and nodes, with severe repercussions on the global tech industry and global financial markets.

Chinese-Korean pinch point

The Changbaishan volcanic complex encompassing Mount Paektu straddles the Sino-North Korean border and is best known for its “millennium eruption” of 946 CE which was estimated to be a VEI 7 eruption. Tephra deposits from this eruption were documented as far as Hokkaido, Japan14, demonstrating the capacity of this volcano to cause widespread disturbances in the region. An eruption column, even from a smaller scale eruption (VEI 4-6) at Mount Paektu might be able to produce a column of tephra that would disrupt some of the world’s busiest air routes, such as Seoul to Osaka and Seoul to Tokyo15 and maritime traffic crossing the Sea of ​​Japan.

Luzon pinch point

The Luzon Strait is a key maritime passage connecting the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea, and a key route for submarine cables, with at least 17 cables connecting China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and the South Korea. The Luzon Volcanic Arc (LVA) encompassing the volcanoes of Mount Mayon, Mount Pinatubo, Babuyan Claro, and Taal, among others, presents a possible location for an explosive eruption that could disrupt the Strait. Volcanic ash and underwater landslides and tsunamis of volcanic origin in this region (especially from the underwater volcanic centers) would pose a risk to the submarine cable infrastructure in the Strait and cause the closure of the navigation passage. The 2006 7.0 Mw Hengchun earthquake off the southwest coast of Taiwan triggered submarine landslides that severed 9 submarine cables in the Luzon Strait that connects Hong Kong, China , Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan, leading to almost total Internet failures and severely hampering communication capacities (up to 80% in Hong Kong), with widespread disruption in return on the global financial markets. These disruptions continued for weeks on end, with cable repairs taking 49 days for 11 ships to restore.16.

Malaysian pinch point

The Strait of Malacca is one of the busiest sea passages in the world, with 40% of world trade crossing the narrow route each year17. Kuala Lumpur and Singapore border the Strait and are busy trade, air and sea hubs. The region is also one of the busiest airspaces in the world, with the air route between the two cities alone comprising more than 5.5 million seats per year.15. This region is also known to be very volcanically active, with many volcanic centers present along the Indonesian archipelago, such as Mount Sinabung (VEI 4) and Mount Toba in Sumatra, and Mount Merapi (VEI 4) in central Java. Breakage or air or sea transport as a result of a tephra column could cause serious delays and disrupt world trade. Modeling a VEI 6 eruption at Mount Merapi that only considered the cost of disrupting air routes, with airspace closure across Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, estimated a potential loss of up to $ 2.51 trillion in global GDP production loss over a 5-year period18.

Mediterranean pinch point

Similar to the Strait of Malacca, the Mediterranean is a vital passage for the maritime transport of goods and goods from the Middle East and Asia to Europe, and is home to an extensive network of submarine communication cables connecting the Europe to Africa, North America, the Middle East, and Asia. A tsunami of volcanic origin from a volcanic center such as Santorini (as happened during the Minoan eruption 3500 BCE), could cause extensive damage to submarine cables and disrupt port facilities and global shipping passages, such as the Suez Canal. The criticality of the Suez Canal was highlighted by the closure of the passage following the grounding of a container ship in March 2021. The 6-day closure would have cost between 6 and 10 billion dollars per week in France. world trade, through delays in the transport of goods and the diversion of canal vessels19. Many volcanic centers in the region are capable of producing such activity, including Mount Vesuvius, Santorini, and Campi Flegrei, all of which are capable of the explosive eruption of VEI 3-6. In addition, any column of tephra produced during an eruption would result in a temporary closure of European airspace, with delays extended to air transport and trade networks.

North Atlantic Pinch Point

Air traffic between London and New York includes more than 3 million seats per year15. Disruption of this critical artery could disrupt and delay global trade and transportation networks on a large scale. Volcanic centers in Iceland are a potential source of this disturbance, with many volcanic centers producing explosive events of VEI 3-6, including Katla (1918), Hekla (1947) and Grímsvötn (2011).

Pacific Northwest Pinch Point

An eruption from a Cascades volcano, such as Mount Rainier, Glacier Peak, or Mount Baker in Washington, would have the potential to trigger mass fluxes, such as debris avalanches or lahars, resulting from melting glaciers and ice caps, with the potential to reach Seattle20. The Osceola Mudslide generated about 5,600 years ago at Mount Rainier traveled more than 60 miles to reach Puget Sound at the site of what is now the Port of Tacoma in Seattle. The generation of a mass flow of similar scale, and combined with any ash fall to Seattle, would force the temporary closure of airports and seaports, which respectively represent 2.5% of total US traffic.18. Volcanic ash could also affect wider airspace, including parts of Canada, including Vancouver, and US cities such as Portland. Scenario modeling for a VEI 6 eruption at Mount Rainier with volcanic ash closing airspace in the northern United States and parts of Canada predicts potential losses of up to US $ 7.63 trillion of production loss of world GDP over a 5-year period18.


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