It sounds alarming, and it is – there's a reasonable chance a massive volcanic explosion will wipe out a significant portion of the global population before the end of the century, a report reckons.
The European Science Foundation published finding estimating a probability of between five and 10 per cent that an eruption will reach a “cataclysmic” level on the volcanic explosivity index before 2100, similar in scale to the Tambora supervolcano explosion that killed 92,000 people in Indonesia in 1815.
But this time the consequences of such an event would be much worse, according to the report. Why? Not because eruptions are getting bigger, but because the density of human populations is increasing.
“Large volcanic eruptions have the potential to impact climate, anthropogenic infrastructure and resource supplies on a global scale,” the researchers said.
“Under the present conditions of a global civilisation facing food, water and energy scarcity, the largest eruptions during the Holocene [the most recent geological epoch, which began about 12,000 years ago] would have had major global consequences.”
As if that wasn't enough, there's also an even more terrifying prospect, although one that's much less likely to become reality – that an explosion that could be as massive as the Toba eruption, also in Indonesia, which is thought to have killed half the world's population 74,000 years ago. Disasters of this scale tend to only happen around once every 800,000 years, though.
For Britain specifically, the most likely culprits include Mount Vesuvius near Naples in Italy and the Eyjafjallajokull - that of "ash cloud" fame - in Iceland. When the latter erupted in 2010, flights across Europe had to be grounded for a week.
How destructive an eruption is depends on where it comes on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). In the case of Tambora it was around 7, whereas Eyjafjallajokull was fell a few points below that.
“An obvious question arises: if a VEI 3-4 eruption in northern Europe blocked air traffic for a week . . . what would be the consequences of a larger eruption of, say, VEI 7?” the report asks.
“What consequences would result from a Plinian eruption of Vesuvius similar to the one that occurred in AD79, or an eruption of the Phlegraean Fields, an area with the potential [for] generating VEI 7 eruptions located in the heart of the Mediterranean area?”
To answer questions like these, the scientists have asked world leaders for £2bn to spend on researching ways to manage volcanic disasters. Governments haven't yet given away that much about how they intend to tackle the looming catastrophe.