Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2015
An estimated 800 million people live within 100 km of an active volcano in 86 countries and additional overseas territories worldwide [see Chapter 4 and Appendix B]1. Volcanoes are compelling evidence that the Earth is a dynamic planet characterised by endless change and renewal. Humans have always found volcanic activity fascinating and have often chosen to live close to volcanoes, which commonly provide favourable environments for life. Volcanoes bring many benefits to society: eruptions fertilise soils; elevated topography provides good sites for infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications on elevated ground); water resources are commonly plentiful; volcano tourism can be lucrative; and volcanoes can acquire spiritual, aesthetic or religious significance. Some volcanoes are also associated with geothermal resources, making them a target for exploration and a potential energy resource.
Much of the time volcanoes are not a threat because they erupt very infrequently or because communities have become resilient to frequently erupting volcanoes. However, there is an everpresent danger of a long-dormant volcano re-awakening or of volcanoes producing anomalously large or unexpected eruptions. Volcanic eruptions can cause loss of life and livelihoods in exposed communities, damage or disrupt critical infrastructure and add stress to already fragile environments. Their impacts can be both short-term, e.g. physical damage, and long-term, e.g. sustained or permanent displacement of populations. The risk from volcanic eruptions and their attendant hazards is often underestimated beyond areas within the immediate proximity of a volcano. For example, volcanic ash hazards can have effects hundreds of kilometres away from the vent and have an adverse impact on human and animal health, infrastructure, transport, agriculture and horticulture, the environment and economies. The products of volcanism and their impacts can extend beyond country borders, to be regional and even global in scale.
Although known historical loss of life from volcanic eruptions (since 1600 AD about 280,000 fatalities are recorded, Auker et al. (2013)) is modest compared to other major natural hazards, volcanic eruptions can be catastrophic for exposed communities. In 1985 the town of Armero in Colombia was buried by lahars (volcanic mudflows) with more than 21,000 fatalities due to relatively small explosive eruptions at the summit of Nevado del Ruiz volcano that partially melted a glacier (Voight, 1990).