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Modeling Volcanoes – When will they erupt?

A recent post by the excellent Maths Careers website looked at how we can model volcanic eruptions mathematically. This is an important branch of mathematics – which looks to assign risk to events and these methods are very important to statisticians and insurers. Given that large-scale volcanic eruptions have the potential to end modern civilisation, it’s also useful to know how likely the next large eruption is.

The Guardian has recently run a piece on the dangers that large volcanoes pose to humans.  Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano which erupted in 2010 caused over 100,000 flights to be grounded and cost the global economy over $1 billion – and yet this was only a very minor eruption historically speaking.  For example, the Tombora eruption in Indonesia (1815) was so big that the explosion could be heard over 2000km away, and the 200 million tones of sulpher that were emitted spread across the globe, lowering global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius.  This led to widespread famine as crops failed – and tens of thousands of deaths.


Super volcanoes

Even this destruction is insignificant when compared to the potential damage caused by a super volcano.  These volcanoes, like that underneath Yellowstone Park in America, have the potential to wipe-out millions in the initial explosion and and to send enough sulpher and ash into the air to cause a “volcanic winter” of significantly lower global temperatures.  The graphic above shows that the ash from a Yellowstone eruption could cover the ground of about half the USA. The resultant widespread disruption to global food supplies and travel would be devastating.

So, how can we predict the probability of a volcanic eruption?  The easiest model to use, if we already have an estimated probability of eruption is the Poisson distribution:

 P(X{=}k)= \frac{\lambda^k e^{-\lambda}}{k!},

 This formula calculates the probability that X equals a given value of k.  λ is the mean of the distribution.  If X represents the number of volcanic eruptions we have Pr(X ≥1) = 1 – Pr(x = 0).  This gives us a formula for working out the probability of an eruption as 1 -e.  For example, the Yellowstone super volcano erupts around every 600,000 years.  Therefore if λ is the number of eruptions every year, we have λ = 1/600,000  ≈ 0.00000167 and 1 -e also ≈ 0.00000167. This gets more interesting if we then look at the probability over a range of years. We can do this by modifying the formula for probability as 1 -e-tλ where t is the number of years for our range.

So the probability of a Yellowstone eruption in the next 1000 years is 1 -e-0.00167 ≈ 0.00166, and the probability in the next 10,000 years is 1 -e-0.0167 ≈ 0.0164. So we have approximately a 2% chance of this eruption in the next 10,000 years.


A far smaller volcano, like Katla in Iceland has erupted 16 times in the past 1100 years – giving a average eruption every ≈ 70 years. This gives λ = 1/70 ≈ 0.014. So we can expect this to erupt in the next 10 years with probability 1 -e-0.14 ≈ 0.0139. And in the next 30 years with probability 1 -e-0.42 ≈ 0.34.

The models for volcanic eruptions can get a lot more complicated – especially as we often don’t know the accurate data to give us an estimate for the λ.  λ can be estimated using a technique called Maximum Likelihood Estimation – which you can read about here.

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IB Revision

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If you’re already thinking about your coursework then it’s probably also time to start planning some revision, either for the end of Year 12 school exams or Year 13 final exams. There’s a really great website that I would strongly recommend students use – you choose your subject (HL/SL/Studies if your exam is in 2020 or Applications/Analysis if your exam is in 2021), and then have the following resources:

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 4.42.05 PM.pngThe Questionbank takes you to a breakdown of each main subject area (e.g. Algebra, Calculus etc) and each area then has a number of graded questions. What I like about this is that you are given a difficulty rating, as well as a mark scheme and also a worked video tutorial.  Really useful!

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The Practice Exams section takes you to ready made exams on each topic – again with worked solutions.  This also has some harder exams for those students aiming for 6s and 7s and the Past IB Exams section takes you to full video worked solutions to every question on every past paper – and you can also get a prediction exam for the upcoming year.

I would really recommend everyone making use of this – there is a mixture of a lot of free content as well as premium content so have a look and see what you think.

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IB Maths Exploration Guide

IB Maths Exploration Guide

A comprehensive 63 page pdf guide to help you get excellent marks on your maths investigation. Includes:

  1. Investigation essentials,
  2. Marking criteria guidance,
  3. 70 hand picked interesting topics
  4. Useful websites for use in the exploration,
  5. A student checklist for top marks
  6. Avoiding common student mistakes
  7. A selection of detailed exploration ideas
  8. Advice on using Geogebra, Desmos and Tracker.

Available to download here.

IB Exploration Modelling and Statistics Guide

IB Exploration Modelling and Statistics Guide

A 60 page pdf guide full of advice to help with modelling and statistics explorations – focusing in on non-calculator methods in order to show good understanding. Includes:

  1. Pearson’s Product: Height and arm span
  2. How to calculate standard deviation by hand
  3. Binomial investigation: ESP powers
  4. Paired t tests and 2 sample t tests: Reaction times
  5. Chi Squared: Efficiency of vaccines
  6. Spearman’s rank: Taste preference of cola
  7. Linear regression and log linearization.
  8. Quadratic regression and cubic regression.
  9. Exponential and trigonometric regression.

Available to download here.

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