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Minor volcanic eruptions could ‘cascade’ into global catastrophe, experts warn

Fri, 06/08/2021 - 10:09

Currently, much of the thinking around risks posed by volcanoes follows a simple equation: the bigger the likely eruption, the worse it will be for society and human welfare.

However, a team of experts now argues that too much focus is on the risks of massive yet rare volcanic explosions, while far too little attention is paid to the potential domino effects of moderate eruptions in key parts of the planet.

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) have identified seven “pinch points” where clusters of relatively small but active volcanoes sit alongside vital infrastructure that, if paralyzed, could have catastrophic global consequences.  

These regions include volcano groups in Taiwan, North Africa, the North Atlantic, and the northwestern United States. The report is published today in the journal Nature Communications.        

“Even a minor eruption in one of the areas we identify could erupt enough ash or generate large enough tremors to disrupt networks that are central to global supply chains and financial systems,” said Dr Lara Mani from CSER, lead author of the latest report.

“At the moment, calculations are too skewed towards giant explosions or nightmare scenarios, when the more likely risks come from moderate events that disable major international communications, trade networks or transport hubs. This is true of earthquakes and extreme weather as well as volcanic eruption.”

Mani and colleagues say that smaller eruptions ranking up to 6 on the “volcanic explosivity index”– rather than the 7s and 8s that tend to occupy catastrophist thinking – could easily produce ash clouds, mudflows and landslides that scupper undersea cables, leading to financial market shutdowns, or devastate crop yields, causing food shortages that lead to political turmoil.

As an example from recent history, the team point to events of 2010 in Iceland, where a magnitude 4 eruption from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, close to the major “pinch point” of mainland Europe, saw plumes of ash carried on northwesterly winds close European airspace at a cost of US$5 billion to the global economy.

Yet when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, a magnitude 6 eruption some 100 times greater in scale than the Icelandic event, its distance from vital infrastructure[l1] [FL2]  meant that overall economic damage was less than a fifth of Eyjafjallajökull. (Pinatubo would have a global economic impact of around US$740 million if it occurred in 2021.)

The seven “pinch point” areas identified by the experts – within which relatively small eruptions could inflict maximum global mayhem – include the volcanic group on the northern tip of Taiwan. Home to one of the largest producers of electronic chips, if this area – along with the Port of Taipei – was indefinitely incapacitated, the global tech industry could grind to a halt.  

Another pinch point is the Mediterranean, where legends of the classical world such as Vesuvius and Santorini could induce tsunamis that smash submerged cable networks and seal off the Suez Canal. “We saw what a six-day closure to the Suez Canal did earlier this year, when a single stuck container ship cost up to ten billion dollars a week in global trade,” said Mani.    

Eruptions in the US state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest could trigger mudflows and ash clouds that blanket Seattle, shutting down airports and seaports. Scenario modelling for a magnitude 6 eruption from Mount Rainier predicts potential economic losses of more than US$7 trillion over the ensuing five years.

The highly active volcanic centres along the Indonesian archipelago – from Sumatra to Central Java – also line the Strait of Malacca: one of the busiest shipping passages in the world, with 40% of global trade traversing the narrow route each year.

The Luzon Strait in the South China Sea, another key shipping route, is the crux of all the major submerged cabling that connects China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. It is also encircled by the Luzon Volcanic Arc.

The researchers also identify the volcanic region straddling the Chinese-North-Korean border, from which plumes of ash would disrupt the busiest air routes in the east, and point out that a reawakening of Icelandic volcanoes would do the same in the west.    

“It’s time to change how we view extreme volcanic risk,” added Mani. “We need to move away from thinking in terms of colossal eruptions destroying the world, as portrayed in Hollywood films. The more probable scenarios involve lower-magnitude eruptions interacting with our societal vulnerabilities and cascading us towards catastrophe.”

Researchers call for a shift in focus away from risks of “super-volcanic” eruptions and towards likelier scenarios of smaller eruptions in key global “pinch points” creating devastating domino effects.

We need to move away from thinking in terms of colossal eruptions destroying the world, as portrayed in Hollywood filmsLara ManiBjarki SigursveinssonClouds of ash rising up from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010


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Blushing plants reveal when fungi are growing in their roots

Fri, 23/07/2021 - 08:06

This is the first time this vital, 400 million year old process has been visualised in real time in full root systems of living plants. Understanding the dynamics of plant colonisation by fungi could help to make food production more sustainable in the future.

Almost all crop plants form associations with a particular type of fungi – called arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi – in the soil, which greatly expand their root surface area. This mutually beneficial interaction boosts the plant’s ability to take up nutrients that are vital for growth. 

The more nutrients plants obtain naturally, the less artificial fertilisers are needed. Understanding this natural process, as the first step towards potentially enhancing it, is an ongoing research challenge. Progress is likely to pay huge dividends for agricultural productivity.

In a study published in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers used the bright red pigments of beetroot – called betalains – to visually track soil fungi as they colonised plant roots in a living plant. 

“We can now follow how the relationship between the fungi and plant root develops, in real-time, from the moment they come into contact. We previously had no idea about what happened because there was no way to visualise it in a living plant without the use of elaborate microscopy,” said Dr Sebastian Schornack, a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory and joint senior author of the paper. 

To achieve their results, the researchers engineered two model plant species – a legume and a tobacco plant – so that they would produce the highly visible betalain pigments when arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi were present in their roots. This involved combining the control regions of two genes activated by mycorrhizal fungi with genes that synthesise red-coloured betalain pigments.

The plants were then grown in a transparent structure so that the root system was visible, and images of the roots could be taken with a flatbed scanner without disturbing the plants.

Using their technique, the researchers could select red pigmented parts of the root system to observe the fungus more closely as it entered individual plant cells and formed elaborate tree-like structures – called arbuscules – which grow inside the plant’s roots. Arbuscules take up nutrients from the soil that would otherwise be beyond the reach of the plant. 

Other methods exist to visualise this process, but these involve digging up and killing the plant and the use of chemicals or expensive microscopy. This work makes it possible for the first time to watch by eye and with simple imaging how symbiotic fungi start colonising living plant roots, and inhabit parts of the plant root system over time.

“This is an exciting new tool to visualise this, and other, important plant processes. Beetroot pigments are a distinctive colour, so they’re very easy to see. They also have the advantage of being natural plant pigments, so they are well tolerated by plants,” said Dr Sam Brockington, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, and joint senior author of the paper.

Mycorrhiza fungi are attracting growing interest in agriculture. This new technique provides the ability to ‘track and trace’ the presence of symbiotic fungi in soils from different sources and locations. The researchers say this will enable the selection of fungi that colonise plants fastest and provide the biggest benefits in agricultural scenarios.

Understanding and exploiting the dynamics of plant root system colonisation by fungi has potential to enhance future crop production in an environmentally sustainable way. If plants can take up more nutrients naturally, this will reduce the need for artificial fertilisers – saving money and reducing associated water pollution. 

This research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Royal Society, and Natural Environment Research Council. 

Reference
Timoneda, A. & Yunusov, T. et al: ‘MycoRed: Betalain pigments enable in vivo real-time visualisation of arbuscular mycorrhizal colonisation.’ PLOS Biology, July 2021. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001326

Scientists have created plants whose cells and tissues ‘blush’ with beetroot pigments when they are colonised by fungi that help them take up nutrients from the soil.

We can now follow how the relationship between the fungi and plant root develops, in real-time, from the moment they come into contact.Sebastian SchornackTemur Yunusov and Alfonso TimonedaCells of roots colonised by fungi turn red


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Global food security is a major research priority for UK and international science.

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