Satoru Nishikawa asks if we are prepared for the ash clouds and climate change that would follow a major eruption. The interview is part of the Risk Response Network’s “What if?” series.

What is your main field of expertise and current research?
I have dealt with disaster reduction policies, disaster response and emergency humanitarian assistance in situations where a major accident or disaster affects large numbers of people over a wide geographical region. I am especially interested in disaster mitigation.

From your research, what would you say is the most under-appreciated risk that would have global, regional or industry implications?
There is a lack of awareness of the risks associated with catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions. Because major eruptions are infrequent, there is a big gap between what the scientists know about the risks and how the general public and the business community view such risks.

Within a week of a large-scale volcanic eruption, enormous amounts of ash may be spewed into the global atmosphere. The Icelandic volcano two years ago spread volcanic ash into the European airspace and halted all the airlines. In 1991, ash from the Pinatubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines circled around the earth, causing global climate change that seriously affected agricultural production.

There are enormous volcanic eruptions every 100 to 200 years and while scientists and volcanologists – and now the airline industry – recognize this, we need to draw the attention of the international community to the potential global impact of such catastrophic events.

How would you frame this risk as a hypothetical scenario: “what if” this was to actually happen?
It has already happened and will happen again. The risk is always present. If you look back in history there are records of such volcanic eruptions. In the Middle Ages, Europe experienced famine as a result of volcanic ash. The impact from the ash is felt within a week, affecting the global climate, and having a dramatic impact on food production and the whole international community.

Although human beings have experienced such phenomena, in the past they may not have been recognized as part of a global disaster. Famine, for example, was more accepted. The global population has doubled over the last 50 years and the impact of a food shortage is much more serious. I think that the real impact of such a food shortage would lead directly to social unrest – and that’s what we have to be really serious about.

There could also be a massive information crisis if there is sulfur dioxide in the volcanic ash particles. These can penetrate into computers and damage the electronic circuits, having a large scale impact on communications and information systems.

What is your top mitigation approach for this risk?
It is impossible to stop a volcanic eruption but we do know how quickly the ash will disperse into the atmosphere. This can be numerically calculated so we can assess its impact. Today, scientists can calculate the effect on the global climate and are able, for example, to advise on adapting agricultural crops for a cooler climate. And of course, if we are prepared, we can take measures to protect the most important computer systems.

So the only way to address this risk is to inform people?
Yes. The airline industry, at least, recognizes the risks but other industries should be aware of the possible global impact of a catastrophic volcano eruption.

What is your personal role in this process?
The Global Agenda Council on Catastrophic Risk is trying to raise awareness, especially in the business community, about the unappreciated risks. By talking about the possibilities we can at least draw the attention of the international community to the possible risk factors.

Is there anything you would like to add on a personal note?
Let me tell you an anecdote that demonstrates the paradox of disaster mitigation. When there is a big disaster and the mitigation or disaster reduction measures fail, it makes the headlines and people are excited and a massive amount of relief flows into the affected area. However, when the disaster mitigation or disaster reduction measures are successful, there are no headlines. Success is not highlighted, which means that international attention and national budgets for such activities tend to decrease. And this is the irony of dealing with disasters. Right now, everybody is focused on the Eurozone and the political decisions and international agreements that are being negotiated among its members. But does any leader have in mind about an enormous volcanic eruption? That’s something totally different.

Pictured: Mount Etna spews volcanic ash during an eruption on the Italian island of Sicily (Reuters)

Satoru Nishikawa is Director, Land and Property Market, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism of Japan; Chair of The Global Agenda Council on Catastrophic Risk and a Member of the World Economic Forum Risk Response Network.