Volcanic Precognition

Web capture_7-12-2021_121312_An article in Science relates a study of earthquake activity near volcanoes being used to warn of impending eruptions. The study was based on the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands chain that erupted last September. Data from the article is shown to the left. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen articles concerning this effort to develop reliable ways to predict volcanoes, but I am surprised that we don’t hear more about it.

This got me thinking about large scale environmental changes and how we as humans react to the threat they pose to our existence. The one we hear most about these days is global warming and the degree to which human actions may be accelerating the process.  A serious issue, as we all know that the comings and goings of ice ages have dramatically reshaped the globe in the past. But for all the havoc global warming may inflict, if it is an extinction level event, it is slow moving enough for us to have time to react (even given the chaos of human divisiveness). Yet rapid extinction level events are a real possibility, so why aren’t we taking them as seriously?

 There have been five great extinctions. An asteroid is likely responsible for one, as most people know about (if only from movies). There are serious efforts to prepare for such an event such as the early warning system ATLAS, and the NASA DART mission which is the beginning of an effort to potentially deflect a killer asteroid. There are other efforts too. It may be a long time before any effective system is in place, but it is comforting to know something is being done.

Volcanoes are a whole different story. Volcanic activity is suspected to have caused mass extinctions in the past, though opinions vary as they reasonably can when discussing things that occured hundreds of millions of years ago. Many speculate that the Yellowstone supervolcano may one day cause such an extinction, though recent studies suggest it may fall below the threshold for that level of potential destruction (unless human reaction to such an event makes things worse somehow). Unlike asteroids, even if we do perfect early warning, there doesn’t seem to be any way to really prevent such an event. Now that I don’t like!

Personally, I think more effort needs to go into studying all potential avenues of extinction, so we can prioritize our approach to potential ways of dealing with them. It would be awful to think we might put all our effort into one threat only to be caught unexpectedly by another.

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