, Volume 66, Issue 8, pp 735-748
Date: 07 May 2004

The size and frequency of the largest explosive eruptions on Earth

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Abstract

A compilation and analysis of the size and frequency of the largest known explosive eruptions on Earth are presented. The ‘largest’ explosive events are defined to be those eruptions yielding greater than 1015 kg of products (>150 times the mass of the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo). This includes all known eruptions with a volcanic explosivity index (VEI) of 8. A total of 47 such events, ranging in age from Ordovician to Pleistocene, are identified, of which 42 eruptions are known from the past 36 Ma. A logarithmic ‘magnitude’ scale of eruption size is applied, based on erupted mass, to these events. On this scale, 46 eruptions >1015 kg are defined to be of magnitude M8. There is one M9 event known so far, the Fish Canyon Tuff, with an erupted mass of >1016 kg and a magnitude of 9.2. Analysis of this dataset indicates that eruptions of size M8 and larger have occurred with a minimum frequency of ≈1.4 events/Ma in two pulses over the past 36 Ma. On the basis of the activity during the past 13.5 Ma, there is at least a 75% probability of a M8 eruption (>1015 kg) occurring within the next 1 Ma. There is a 1% chance of an eruption of this scale in the next 460–7,200 years. While the effect of any individual M8 or larger eruption is considerable, the time-averaged impact (i.e., erupted mass×frequency) of the very largest eruptions is small, due to their rarity. The long-term, time-averaged erupted mass flux from magnitude 8 and 9 eruptions is ~10–100 times less than for M7 eruptions; the time-averaged mass eruption rate from M7 eruptions is 9,500 kg s−1, whereas for M8 and M9 eruptions it is ~70–1,000 kg s−1. Comparison of the energy release by volcanic eruptions with that due to asteroid impacts suggests that on timescales of <100,000 years, explosive volcanic eruptions are considerably more frequent than impacts of similar energy yield. This has important implications for understanding the risk of extreme events.

Editorial responsibility: R. Cioni