‘Apocalyptic volcanic super eruption is much closer than we thought’, say experts

Data can give us some truly fascinating insights into the world around us. In this blog post Jonathan Rougier, one of our resident statisticians, tells us about some of his work researching explosive volcanism.

The interesting thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard, as John Tukey famously said (famously if you’re a statistician!). Over my career so far I have covered topics from avalanches (Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research) to extreme weather early warning systems (UK Met Office). I’ve even helped to create a phone app to identify birds from their songs, AKA “Shazam for birds”.

One of the most interesting topics has been explosive volcanism, working with scientists in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. They have compiled the definitive database of large explosive eruptions, LaMEVE. This database (held as a spreadsheet) represents many thousands of hours of fieldwork, and also a lot of theory, about how to invert geological traces of eruptions like ash layers back to an assessment of eruption magnitude.

One of our papers had some eye-catching results concerning ‘super-eruptions’, as reported by the Huffington Post in their article, ‘This is what super volcanoes mean for the future of humanity’.

Our paper ‘The global magnitude–frequency relationship for large explosive volcanic eruptions‘ had some eye-catching results concerning ‘super-eruptions’.

A super-eruption is one of the very few natural hazards which has the potential to end our civilisation, or at least put a very large dent in it (the other is an asteroid strike). There have been 3 in the last 100 thousand years, with the largest, Toba (about 75 thousand years ago) being the largest explosive eruption ever recorded.

The Toba caldera – the site of a massive super-eruption 75,000 years ago.
Image credit: NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Using a careful treatment of the records in the LaMEVE database, we found that the return period of super-eruptions is about 20 thousand years – much shorter than previously thought.  

“Volcanologist Who Shifted Date of Next Super-Eruption Is Surprisingly Chill.”

I think the first outlet to publish was End Times Headlines, for which civilisation-ending volcanic eruptions are catnip. The Daily Mail followed shortly after, with ‘Apocalyptic volcanic super eruption that could DESTROY civilisation is much closer than we thought, say experts’. The Sun referred to me as a ‘boffin’.  

My favourite article was, ‘Volcanologist Who Shifted Date of Next Super-Eruption Is Surprisingly Chill,’ in the online magazine Inverse.

Peter Hess, who wrote the article, had contacted me before publication with several interesting questions, and he picked up on one of the messages in the press release, that super-eruptions show that our tenure as a civilisation here on earth is quite precarious.

The reason that I was ‘surprisingly chill’ about super-eruptions was, as he put it, “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.” He might also have mentioned flu-like pandemic or a massive solar storm.

In talks, a popular question is where the next super-eruption will be. This is not really predictable, but if I had to pick one location then it would be Yellowstone in North America, which has had six very large eruptions in the last 1.3 million years, including two super-eruptions.  

Another question is whether there will be any warning: my colleagues tell me not necessarily. If you had a few days warning and knew where the eruption was going to be, you could improve your chances by moving to the opposite side of the earth, although maybe not by very much unless you were already a skilled survivalist.


Jonty Rougier is a ‘full spectrum’ applied statistician. The largest part of his academic work has been in Earth and Environmental Sciences. He’s worked with several UK Government departments and agencies, and also with non-profit organisations and SMEs. You can find out more about Jonty at www.rougierconsulting.com.

If you’d like to hear more about Jonty’s work with Data Cubed and how we’re helping clients delve further into their own data, please email us at hello@data-cubed.co.uk.