Malacca Strait volcanos have the very real potential to wreck the world economy. Much focus has been given to the problems that occur in the bottleneck of the Straits of Hormuz at the bottom of the Red Sea but the Malacca Straits are potentially even more dangerous.
Every year, approximately 90,000 ships pass through the narrow sea lane of the Malacca Strait (see the picture above on ship movements); the Strait links the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. The ships’ cargos – grain, crude oil, and every other commodity under the Sun – comprises an estimated 40% of global trade. Above the Strait is one of the busiest air routes in the world, and below them, running along the seabed, is a dense array of submarine internet cables that keep the world online. It is also a potential flashpoint in China’s expansionist efforts to control the South China Sea, which is at one end of the Strait.
Altogether, these factors make the Malacca Strait one of the most vital arteries of the global economy. It has been classified as a trade choke point in reports by the World Trade Organization, the US Energy Information Administration and Chatham House, the London-based foreign affairs think-tank.
However, the main reason this area is so potentially dangerous is not man made. It’s the natural geography and geology. The Straits are narrow but they are surrounded by volcanos, many of which are active. Researchers are warning that it’s only a matter of time before a natural disaster like an earthquake or an erupting volcano strikes the region – and when it does, we can expect global consequences.
The Malacca Strait separates the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Along the coast of Sumatra, and the more southerly part of Java, which follows the course of the Sunda Trench, is a band of earthquake activity, and several volcanos. On Java, two volcanos, Semeru and Merapi, have recently erupted.
In the Sunda Strait, which separates Java from Sumatra, is Krakatoa, and further west is Tambora, whose eruption in 1815 caused crop failure as far afield as Europe and the eastern United States. The Tambora eruption was magnitude VEI7 in the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), on a logarithmic scale going up to VEI8. An event like 1815 might occur once or twice per millennium. But an eruption need not be of quite so high a magnitude to cause severe problems at a global choke point.
Let’s imagine that one of those active volcanoes – such as Semeru on Java, Indonesia – produces an eruption that would qualify as a VEI5 or VEI6. Magma bursts from the crater. Ash belches into the sky. Tremors shake local towns. If the wind is south-westerly, all air traffic in the Malacca Strait is grounded. The ash falls onto the Strait itself, and rafts of pumice accumulate.
A large, and relatively nearby earthquake, would be a menace of similar scale. It could cause a tsunami to hit the Strait. It would also cause turbidity currents – clouds of fast-moving, shaken-up sediment – that rip across the seabed: That’s, typically, what severs cables. The turbidity currents also bury those cables, making their recovery even harder. We just don’t have redundancy,” says Lara Mani, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. “If something goes wrong, there aren’t spares to pick up the slack. And our satellites, in their current state, can only handle about 3% of global communication.
So how can the Strait be made less vulnerable?
There is nothing we can do to stop earthquakes. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and UNESCO have set up early-warning systems for events such as tsunamis, and there is an existing service (the World-Wide Navigational Warning Service) that warns maritime shipping of meteorological or geological disasters. The Japanese coast guard is the designated coordinator of the area that includes the Malacca Strait.
As for volcanoes, it might one day be possible to avert eruptions by manipulating the magma beneath them, but we are many years from that being a realistic possibility As Mani warns, Indonesia has “more volcanoes than you can shake a stick at, and many of them we, the world’s volcanologists, have never properly looked at them.”
Elsewhere, the best preparation is diversification. More internet satellites would help. Local countries would also bolster their resilience by laying down new submarine cables that take a different route to the existing ones. China seems to be taking this approach with regard to shipping. For years it has been trying to construct a canal across southern Thailand, obviating the need to go via the Malacca Strait. “The Thai Canal”, as it is known, would reduce energy costs by providing a shortcut for crude oil transport. Unfortunately, it would also give China political control over access to that canal, which would benefit no-one except China.
However, this idea of alternatives might turn out to be a useful insurance policy for global shipping. Finding ways of lessening reliance on chokepoints like the Strait, says Ben Bland, director of Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific programme, is “definitely something that’s been on a lot of governments’ minds in Asia”.
Anticipating the inevitable, even though volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are notoriously unpredictable, would seem to be pure common sense.