In its current formulation, emergency planning is geared to events of a known and manageable size. Although, by orchestrating standard operating procedures, it can cope with unexpected events, it is mostly about preparing to manage the impact of known and expected hazards. In this process, it can take advantage of scientific information on the magnitude, frequency, evolution and impacts of the hazards. This is usually accomplished by building scenarios of possible future events. Plans usually require multiple scenarios, as impacts can vary, not only with the size of the hazard, but also with time of day (reflecting aggregate patterns of human activity), season and a variety of factors that change over time in the short term.
The question of what magnitude of event to plan remains open. Most planning scenarios refer to events with recurrence intervals of once a decade, or certainly no less than once every 25 years. As the magnitude-frequency rule states that natural hazards tend to be large in proportion to declining frequency (and lengthening recurrence interval), this excludes the larger, less frequent events. It is held that there is no practical value in preparing for the once-in-10,000-year event, or even the once in a millennium event. As a result of conventions in floodplain mapping, plans that prepare to manage the one-hundred-year flood are quite common, but many other hazards that might occur once in a century are not prepared for at the relevant magnitude. At first encounter, this convention, to restrict the size of the event to be planned for, seems like common sense because it does not commit resources to events that have a very low likelihood of occurring during the lifetime of the plan. Planners, however, remain troubled by the niggling sensation that we would be seriously uncovered if the very large event were to occur. Statistically, faith in the ‘normal distribution’ model of hazard magnitude and frequency has begun to wane. Perhaps this is the result of intensifying climatic hazards, or perhaps it is because very big events have, from time to time, happened, such as the magnitude 9 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011.
What if a VEI-7 or -8 volcanic eruption occurred? This would be an event that ejected between 100 and 1,000 km3 of volcanic material into the atmosphere and onto Earth’s surface. It could involve colossal blast effects and would affect a vast area, and probably the climate of the entire planet. Could one plan to respond to such an event? Indeed, what are the limits of impact beyond which emergency planning is impossible because it would be utterly ineffective?
We need to start with some basic principles. I will not discuss the principles of volcanology or natural hazards, important though they are. Here, I am referring to principles of emergency planning. One of these is that the planning should be carried out for the mass of the population and therefore should be as democratic and participatory as possible. This requires that top-down harmonisation be applied to bottom-up, “grass roots”, emergency response capability. Another is that planning should aim to reduce improvisation to a minimum, not by rigidly imposing constraints on emergency management and response, but by anticipating needs and planning to satisfy them. A further principle is that scenarios should be the basis of planning wherever and whenever they can be constructed reliably. A final principle is that the response to civilian emergencies should not be militarised - or remilitarised, as in most countries the armed forces were once the only source of disaster response. Broadly speaking, the civilianisation of emergency management (from paramilitary civil defence to collaborative, civilian civil protection) is a long-standing trend that should not be reversed. In other words, the solution to a major disaster does not lie in declaring martial law.
Almost by definition, a VEI-7 eruption would overwhelm emergency response capabilities. The same could be true of other kinds of disaster. Apart from nuclear war, these include an influenza pandemic of the scope and ferocity of that which affected at least a quarter of the world’s population (of whom, 11 per cent died) in 1918-1919. The scenario starts to take on the characteristics of a Hollywood disaster movie, one, moreover, that is redolent of science fiction and an intolerable future for human beings on planet Earth.
The question is then what could be done to prepare for and respond to an event of this calibre? Most emergency planners would shrug their shoulders and fatalistically argue that it is too far off the scale (of both time and impact) to be prepared for. This is not quite true, but the process would require a reorientation with respect to current policies, priorities, philosophies and procedures.
One may be tempted to use the Cold War as inspiration, as it was a time when preparations were - ostensibly - made to survive outright nuclear war. Two aspects of this are striking. The first is that most of the preparations were futile. Assumptions about support structures and the habitability of the environment had not been thought through. The second is that there was always the feeling that Cold War preparations would have privileged the rich and powerful and left the mass of the population in the lurch. Indeed, the emergence of civil protection as an alternative to the Cold War’s civil defence model was impeded by the fear among law-makers that if special powers were granted to emergency response forces, they could be used to take over a country and subvert it from democracy to dictatorship. Such fears were not entirely unfounded: in the 1980s when all of this was under scrutiny there were plots to mount coups d’etat in both Britain and Italy.
In the event of overwhelming, massive, ubiquitous disruption, what does emergency planning have to contribute? First of all, unless a major event were imminent, it would need to be carried out in purely theoretical terms, not through the practical commitment of resources. One principle would need to be maintained, namely that emergency planning is about organising in order to make the best possible use of existing resources, and thus reducing improvisation to an unavoidable minimum. Another principle would have to be revised. Emergency planning is normally about planning to manage an emergency by bringing the situation fully under control. In a VEI-7 eruption, that would not be possible. It would be a case of doing the best that one can against overwhelmingly unpropitious circumstances. Limited aims would therefore need to prevail. Hence, the planners would need to decide what aims would be feasible (in the light of the scenario) and how to achieve them.
The larger the emergency, the more important is its ethical framework. For example, in a pandemic with slow and limited development of vaccines, medical ethics should determine who has priority for vaccination. Ethics are the top of the pyramid of response, and they should be dealt with on a priority basis as a means of orientating the framework of all other actions. Thereafter, basic human needs would indicate the priorities. The extent to which these could be satisfied would depend, not only on technical considerations of feasibility, but also on the acceptability of radical modifications to people’s social and economic realities, and above all their livelihoods. Jobs and businesses would be created and destroyed very quickly indeed, and that process would need to be managed with care.
In this process, and in the planning, relatively little can be learned from looking back at the World Wars. However, one important lesson concerns the role of expectations. Life is more complicated now than it was 75 years ago, not only because there are more people on the planet and there is more technology, which has become a more fundamental part of daily life, but also because expectations have changed radically. As most of those expectations would be unable to be fulfilled during a massive disaster, thought needs to be devoted to the question of how to change them.
A further principle of disasters is that decision makers are seldom swayed by scientific evidence. Not only do the politicians routinely ignore it, but in some of the world’s most influential countries a new breed of leader has emerged who actively opposes the evidence. What would the reaction to an emergency plan for a VEI-7 eruption be on the part of a climate change denier? The naive belief that science convinces people because it is objective is nowadays easily discredited.
Nevertheless, if a VEI-7-type emergency were to occur, plans would suddenly become essential documents. A further challenge arises. Given the reluctance of governments even to think about such an event, let alone prepare for it, how would a plan fare that has never been tested and is not familiar to its users? The answer is that we would need to write plans that can be, as far as possible, absorbed and acted upon spontaneously. This is not an ideal approach, but it embraces realism.
In summary, planning for overwhelming disasters is not impossible, but it needs a radically different mindset. Some principles are held in common with ‘normal’ emergency planning, others must take account of totally new circumstances. As always, careful study of consequences is recommended: see my essay on the egg hypothesis.