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Volcanism – Recent findings on the risk of volcanic eruptions

Worldwide, around 550 volcanoes are classed as being active. Each year, between 50 and 65 of them erupt. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the US state of Washington demonstrated the disaster potential of volcanoes. Since then, Munich Re has been considering the question how much risk volcanic eruptions involve.

Today, just as over 25 years ago, it is still true to say that – with the exception of extremely rare major meteorite impacts – no other natural events can devastate such wide areas with the intensity and suddenness of volcanic eruptions. Their direct effects: lava, mud, and pyroclastic flows, glowing clouds, ash eruptions, and ash deposits. The indirect effects: climate change. The losses: besides the direct losses, disruption of air transport and shipping and crop failures.

In the recent past, the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo, Mount Tavavur and La Soufrière (Montserrat, 1995–97) caused substantial losses – running into tens of millions of dollars in most cases. During the eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajökull on Iceland in March and April 2010, a cloud of ash several kilometres high was projected into the atmosphere and carried towards northern and central Europe by the prevailing winds. European airspace was closed to air traffic for safety reasons, and more than 100,000 flights were cancelled, with a corresponding knock-on effect for airline profits. The largest volcanic eruption in recent decades – that of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines – occurred in 1991, and affected the climate worldwide. Aerosol-forming sulphur dioxide molecules got into the upper atmosphere, causing the average global temperature to fall by 0.5°C.

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