volcano

A supervolcano could kill millions of humans, pushing us back to a pre-civilization state, far sooner than scientists previously thought, according to a new report in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. But we shouldn’t worry. Something else will probably kill us first, seeing as the global climate is warming, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are thriving, and nuclear war is a greater threat than ever. Against that backdrop, the study suggests, a supervolcano wiping out most or all humans on Earth seems like a non-issue.

Still, it’s not impossible.

In the paper published Wednesday, the Bristol University team revised previous scientific estimates of how often catastrophic supervolcano eruptions occur. While prior research put world-changing eruptions at comfortably wide intervals, the new paper shrinks that timescale considerably. Previous estimates, made in 2004, said that super-eruptions occurred, on average, every 45,000 to 714,000 years, a time scale that Jonathan Rougier, Ph.D., a statistician and the study’s first author, says is “comfortably longer than our civilization.” His new work puts the updated range at 5,200 to 48,000 years, with the “best guess” value at 17,000 years.

This range gives us significantly less time to prepare for the next cataclysmic eruption, but Rougier isn’t bothered by it. “My view … is that we should not be worried about super-eruptions,” Rougier tells Inverse.

toba caldera
Toba Caldera in Sumatra, Indonesia, produced the largest volcanic eruption of the past 2 million years.

Rougier’s study represents a significant change in the estimated frequency of world-changing supervolcano eruptions. By studying geological records covering the past 100,000 years, he and his colleagues found that the two most recent supervolcano eruptions occurred 20 and 30 thousand years ago.

“On balance, we have been slightly lucky not to experience any super-eruptions since then,” reports Rougier. This would seem to suggest that it’s about time we had another one of these super-eruptions, but just because we haven’t seen one doesn’t necessarily mean we’re overdue for one. In all likelihood, something else will probably kill us first.

“The probability of a super-eruption in (say) my lifetime is absolutely tiny, about 2 in 1000,” says Rougier. “From that point of view, super-eruptions are marginal in light of all the things that we need to worry about right now, and all of the other ways in which our civilization might experience a catastrophe over the next few thousand years.

That being said, Rougier notes, there definitely are communities around the world that are at risk for large — but not super — eruptions.

“They do need to plan and to invest in order to reduce their risk.”