Although the generally high fertility of volcanic soils is often seen as an opportunity, short-term consequences of eruptions on natural and cultivated vegetation are likely to be negative. The empirical knowledge obtained from post-event impact assessments provides crucial insights into the range of parameters controlling impact and recovery of vegetation, but their limited coverage in time and space offers a limited sample of all possible eruptive and environmental conditions. Consequently, vegetation vulnerability remains largely unconstrained, thus impeding quantitative risk analyses.
Here, we explore how cloud-based big Earth observation data, remote sensing and interpretable machine learning (ML) can provide a large-scale alternative to identify the nature of, and infer relationships between, drivers controlling vegetation impact and recovery. We present a methodology developed using Google Earth Engine to systematically revisit the impact of past eruptions and constrain critical hazard and vulnerability parameters. Its application to the impact associated with the tephra fallout from the 2011 eruption of Cordón Caulle volcano (Chile) reveals its ability to capture different impact states as a function of hazard and environmental parameters and highlights feedbacks and thresholds controlling impact and recovery of both natural and cultivated vegetation. We therefore conclude that big Earth observation (EO) data and machine learning complement existing impact datasets and open the way to a new type of dynamic and large-scale vulnerability models.