From The University of Cambridge (UK): “Experts say risk of volcano catastrophe ‘a roll of the dice'”

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From The University of Cambridge (UK)

Fred Lewsey

While funding is pumped into preventing low-probability scenarios such as asteroid collision, the far more likely threat of a large volcanic eruption is close to ignored – despite much that could be done to reduce the risks, say researchers.

The 2021 eruption of Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano. Credit: Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.

The world is “woefully underprepared” for a massive volcanic eruption and the likely repercussions on global supply chains, climate and food, according to experts from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

In an article published in the journal Nature [below], they say there is a “broad misconception” that risks of major eruptions are low, and describe current lack of governmental investment in monitoring and responding to potential volcano disasters as “reckless”.

However, the researchers argue that steps can be taken to protect against volcanic devastation – from improved surveillance to increased public education and magma manipulation – and the resources needed to do so are long overdue.

“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,” said article co-author and CSER researcher Dr Lara Mani, an expert in global risk.

“Such gigantic eruptions have caused abrupt climate change and collapse of civilisations in the distant past.”

Mani compares the risk of a giant eruption to that of a 1km-wide asteroid crashing into Earth. Such events would have similar climatic consequences, but the likelihood of a volcanic catastrophe is hundreds of times higher than the combined chances of an asteroid or comet collision.

“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,” Mani said. “This urgently needs to change. We are completely underestimating the risk to our societies that volcanoes pose.”

An eruption in Tonga in January was the largest ever instrumentally recorded. The researchers argue that if it had gone on longer, released more ash and gas, or occurred in an area full of critical infrastructure – such as the Mediterranean – then global shock waves could have been devastating.

“The Tonga eruption was the volcanic equivalent of an asteroid just missing the Earth, and needs to be treated as a wake-up call,” said Mani.

The CSER experts cite recent research detecting the regularity of major eruptions by analysing traces of sulphur spikes in ancient ice samples. An eruption ten to a hundred times larger than the Tonga blast occurs once every 625 years – twice as often as had been previously thought.

“The last magnitude seven eruption was in 1815 in Indonesia,” said co-author Dr Mike Cassidy, a volcano expert and visiting CSER researcher, now based at the University of Birmingham.

“An estimated 100,000 people died locally, and global temperatures dropped by a degree on average, causing mass crop failures that led to famine, violent uprisings and epidemics in what was known as the year without summer,” he said.

“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.”

Financial losses from a large magnitude eruption would be in the multi-trillions, and on a comparable scale to the pandemic, say the experts.

Mani and Cassidy outline steps they say need to be taken to help forecast and manage the possibility of a planet-altering eruption, and help mitigate damage from smaller, more frequent eruptions.

These include a more accurate pinpointing of risks. We only know locations of a handful of the 97 eruptions classed as large magnitude on the “Volcano Explosivity Index” over the last 60,000 years. This means there could be dozens of dangerous volcanoes dotted the world over with the potential for extreme destruction, about which humanity has no clue.

“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,” said Cassidy. “Volcanoes can lie dormant for a long time, but still be capable of sudden and extraordinary destruction.”

Monitoring must be improved, say the CSER experts. Only 27% 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”.

“Volcanologists have been calling for a dedicated volcano-monitoring satellite for over twenty years,” said Mani. “Sometimes we have to rely on the generosity of private satellite companies for rapid imagery.”

The experts also call for increased research into volcano “geoengineering”. This includes the need to study means of countering aerosols released by a massive eruption, which could lead to a “volcanic winter”. They also say that work to investigate manipulating pockets of magma beneath active volcanoes should be undertaken.

Added Mani: “Directly affecting volcanic behaviour may seem inconceivable, but so did the deflection of asteroids until the formation of the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office in 2016. The risks of a massive eruption that devastates global society is significant. The current underinvestment in responding to this risk is simply reckless.”

Science paper:

See the full article here .


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U Cambridge Campus

The University of Cambridge (UK) [legally The Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars of the University of Cambridge] is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, England. Founded in 1209 Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university. It grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford (UK) after a dispute with townsfolk. The two ancient universities share many common features and are often jointly referred to as “Oxbridge”.

Cambridge is formed from a variety of institutions which include 31 semi-autonomous constituent colleges and over 150 academic departments, faculties and other institutions organized into six schools. All the colleges are self-governing institutions within the university, each controlling its own membership and with its own internal structure and activities. All students are members of a college. Cambridge does not have a main campus and its colleges and central facilities are scattered throughout the city. Undergraduate teaching at Cambridge is organized around weekly small-group supervisions in the colleges – a feature unique to the Oxbridge system. These are complemented by classes, lectures, seminars, laboratory work and occasionally further supervisions provided by the central university faculties and departments. Postgraduate teaching is provided predominantly centrally.

Cambridge University Press a department of the university is the oldest university press in the world and currently the second largest university press in the world. Cambridge Assessment also a department of the university is one of the world’s leading examining bodies and provides assessment to over eight million learners globally every year. The university also operates eight cultural and scientific museums, including the Fitzwilliam Museum, as well as a botanic garden. Cambridge’s libraries – of which there are 116 – hold a total of around 16 million books, around nine million of which are in Cambridge University Library, a legal deposit library. The university is home to – but independent of – the Cambridge Union – the world’s oldest debating society. The university is closely linked to the development of the high-tech business cluster known as “Silicon Fe”. It is the central member of Cambridge University Health Partners, an academic health science centre based around the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

By both endowment size and consolidated assets Cambridge is the wealthiest university in the United Kingdom. In the fiscal year ending 31 July 2019, the central university – excluding colleges – had a total income of £2.192 billion of which £592.4 million was from research grants and contracts. At the end of the same financial year the central university and colleges together possessed a combined endowment of over £7.1 billion and overall consolidated net assets (excluding “immaterial” historical assets) of over £12.5 billion. It is a member of numerous associations and forms part of the ‘golden triangle’ of English universities.

Cambridge has educated many notable alumni including eminent mathematicians; scientists; politicians; lawyers; philosophers; writers; actors; monarchs and other heads of state. As of October 2020, 121 Nobel laureates; 11 Fields Medalists; 7 Turing Award winners; and 14 British prime ministers have been affiliated with Cambridge as students; alumni; faculty or research staff. University alumni have won 194 Olympic medals.


By the late 12th century, the Cambridge area already had a scholarly and ecclesiastical reputation due to monks from the nearby bishopric church of Ely. However, it was an incident at Oxford which is most likely to have led to the establishment of the university: three Oxford scholars were hanged by the town authorities for the death of a woman without consulting the ecclesiastical authorities who would normally take precedence (and pardon the scholars) in such a case; but were at that time in conflict with King John. Fearing more violence from the townsfolk scholars from the University of Oxford started to move away to cities such as Paris; Reading; and Cambridge. Subsequently enough scholars remained in Cambridge to form the nucleus of a new university when it had become safe enough for academia to resume at Oxford. In order to claim precedence, it is common for Cambridge to trace its founding to the 1231 charter from Henry III granting it the right to discipline its own members (ius non-trahi extra) and an exemption from some taxes; Oxford was not granted similar rights until 1248.

A bull in 1233 from Pope Gregory IX gave graduates from Cambridge the right to teach “everywhere in Christendom”. After Cambridge was described as a studium generale in a letter from Pope Nicholas IV in 1290 and confirmed as such in a bull by Pope John XXII in 1318 it became common for researchers from other European medieval universities to visit Cambridge to study or to give lecture courses.

Foundation of the colleges

The colleges at the University of Cambridge were originally an incidental feature of the system. No college is as old as the university itself. The colleges were endowed fellowships of scholars. There were also institutions without endowments called hostels. The hostels were gradually absorbed by the colleges over the centuries; but they have left some traces, such as the name of Garret Hostel Lane.

Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely, founded Peterhouse – Cambridge’s first college in 1284. Many colleges were founded during the 14th and 15th centuries but colleges continued to be established until modern times. There was a gap of 204 years between the founding of Sidney Sussex in 1596 and that of Downing in 1800. The most recently established college is Robinson built in the late 1970s. However, Homerton College only achieved full university college status in March 2010 making it the newest full college (it was previously an “Approved Society” affiliated with the university).

In medieval times many colleges were founded so that their members would pray for the souls of the founders and were often associated with chapels or abbeys. The colleges’ focus changed in 1536 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry VIII ordered the university to disband its Faculty of Canon Law and to stop teaching “scholastic philosophy”. In response, colleges changed their curricula away from canon law and towards the classics; the Bible; and mathematics.

Nearly a century later the university was at the centre of a Protestant schism. Many nobles, intellectuals and even commoners saw the ways of the Church of England as too similar to the Catholic Church and felt that it was used by the Crown to usurp the rightful powers of the counties. East Anglia was the centre of what became the Puritan movement. In Cambridge the movement was particularly strong at Emmanuel; St Catharine’s Hall; Sidney Sussex; and Christ’s College. They produced many “non-conformist” graduates who, greatly influenced by social position or preaching left for New England and especially the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the Great Migration decade of the 1630s. Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War and head of the English Commonwealth (1649–1660), attended Sidney Sussex.

Modern period

After the Cambridge University Act formalized the organizational structure of the university the study of many new subjects was introduced e.g. theology, history and modern languages. Resources necessary for new courses in the arts architecture and archaeology were donated by Viscount Fitzwilliam of Trinity College who also founded the Fitzwilliam Museum. In 1847 Prince Albert was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge after a close contest with the Earl of Powis. Albert used his position as Chancellor to campaign successfully for reformed and more modern university curricula, expanding the subjects taught beyond the traditional mathematics and classics to include modern history and the natural sciences. Between 1896 and 1902 Downing College sold part of its land to build the Downing Site with new scientific laboratories for anatomy, genetics, and Earth sciences. During the same period the New Museums Site was erected including the Cavendish Laboratory which has since moved to the West Cambridge Site and other departments for chemistry and medicine.

The University of Cambridge began to award PhD degrees in the first third of the 20th century. The first Cambridge PhD in mathematics was awarded in 1924.

In the First World War 13,878 members of the university served and 2,470 were killed. Teaching and the fees it earned came almost to a stop and severe financial difficulties followed. As a consequence, the university first received systematic state support in 1919 and a Royal Commission appointed in 1920 recommended that the university (but not the colleges) should receive an annual grant. Following the Second World War the university saw a rapid expansion of student numbers and available places; this was partly due to the success and popularity gained by many Cambridge scientists.