Volcanic eruption risk management burst onto the scene after the Eyjafjallajökull erupted under an ice cap that created a sky-blackening ash cloud. The enormous cloud, made of ash and steam from the volcano erupting under the ice, drifted from Iceland to Northern Europe.
*Revised August 2018
Of all the natural disasters, volcanic eruptions are perhaps the most distinctive, because they are dramatic and potentially the most devastating. The intimidating yet awe-inspiring phenomena of molten rocks spewing from the earth and turning everything they touch into ashes. Also, while the relentless flow of lava and other hazardous materials coupled with the uncertainty associated with the next big eruption only create anguish in the scientific community, the extremely complex dynamics involved in the process render mankind helpless.
Iceland is again witnessing another massive and uninterrupted eruption in Bárðarbunga, one of the 30 identified volcanic systems in the exotic country. The eruptions that began on August 31, 2014 are set to dwarf the Nordic country’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, when volcanic ash, toxic gas and fumes clouded Europe for weeks causing substantial economic and societal disruptions. While the Eyjafjallajökull is estimated to have cost the global commercial airline industry a whopping $1.7 billion in revenue loss, analysts estimate
The financial cost figures for the Bárðarbunga aren’t estimated to be as high, however, the cascading effects of the volcanic fissure eruption could be far more damaging. The Icelandic Met Office has detected thousands of earthquakes in the Bárðarbunga area and a rapidly melting glacier (due to magma flow) pose serious flood threats in the island nation. Also, significantly higher levels of eruption pollution, mainly sulfur dioxide (SO2), have hit most parts of Iceland while volcanologist Haraldur Sigurðsson expects the Bárðarbunga eruptions to end on March 4, 2015. Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a researcher at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences told Newsweek that by October 1 the eruption had already spewed out more sulfur dioxide than any other Icelandic volcano in the past several hundred years.
According to National Geographic, the Bárðarbunga “has spewed out enough molten rock, so far, to fill 740 Empire State buildings and has buried, on average, an area the size of an NFL football field every 5 minutes. At this rate, the lava flow will soon be larger than any seen for more than two centuries in the volcanic-ally active island nation.” According to John Stevenson, Bárðarbunga could be “10 times smaller in terms of eruption rate, fire fountain height, and gas content,” than Iceland’s worst volcano the Laki eruption. However, the University of Edinburgh volcano researcher finds, “it’s pretty amazing.”
Yes, volcanoes are amazing, as noted in the intro. But it is equally true that their immediate economic impact and the medium- to long-term health and environmental effects make volcanic risk management a crucial requirement for governments and business establishments in both mature and emerging economies. Just as volcanic eruptions are distinctive natural events, the challenges associated with volcanic risk management are mostly unique.
As already stated, the dynamics involved in volcanic risk are quite complex, requiring dedicated commitment, superior resources and capable tools to analyze the aspects associated with volcanic risk management. Ensuring the availability of all these require substantive financial investment, which isn’t always possible for smaller businesses and those capable of investing in the cause often find reasons not to.
Organizations are usually unmindful about the potential hazards that could affect their employees, which in turn impacts productivity and performance. For example, due to the Bárðarbunga eruption, higher levels of sulfur dioxide polluted most parts of Iceland with levels reaching a dangerous 500mµ/m3. In some areas, SO2 levels reportedly exceeded 600mµ/m3, a very dangerous threshold where people should abstain from being outdoors for more than 30 minutes.
Satisfactory reduction of volcanic risks involve tackling several related aspects of risk management and business continuity that include:
Authorities and enterprises often make the mistake of viewing the return of eruptions as a very low risk event as they do not usually recur within a short duration. However, viewing it as a low risk threat could cripple the entire risk management strategy of an organization as it will only take one occurrence to devastate the business irreparably. A sound risk management strategy would help prevent the temptation of starting or resuming a business in surrounding of eruption location.
In spite of the existence of these and other related challenges, authorities and corporations must realize that the economic cost of natural disasters such as volcanoes will only increase, due to rising population, rapid industrialization and development pressure. Reduction of vulnerabilities backed by a robust risk management and business continuity strategies are critical to ensuring continuous businesses operations from here on.
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