May 23, 2011

Iceland Volcano Erupts

After lying dormant underneath a glacier since 2004, a volcano in Iceland began spewing steam, ash and smoke into the upper atmosphere on Sunday. Despite the impressive show, this eruption is less likely to endanger air traffic as a similar eruption last did last year.

Closing the main airport in the country as a precaution, pilots were warned to steer clear of Iceland as areas close to the Grimsvotn (GREEMSH-votn) volcano were plunged into darkness. Scientists, however, explain that another widespread aviation shutdown is unlikely, as the ash from this eruption is coarser and falling to Earth more quickly.

"It is not likely to be anything on the scale that was produced last year when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted," University of Iceland geophysicist Pall Einarsson told The Associated Press (AP). "That was an unusual volcano, an unusual ash size distribution and unusual weather pattern, which all conspired together to make life difficult in Europe."

Paul Mott, forecaster at Meteogroup, told The Guardian, that ash from the volcano could potentially reach the UK by Tuesday. "Both the upper level and lower level winds will be becoming north-westerly through Monday and Tuesday as well, so between Iceland and Scotland there will be northwesterlies," he said last night.

"So certainly any ash plume could potentially move from Iceland towards northern Scotland. I think that risk does increase through tomorrow night and into Tuesday."

Mott said that ash was "fairly unlikely over southern Scotland or anywhere south of that", although the Met Office said it was too early to rule out ash entering other parts of Britain.

"At the moment if the volcano continues to erupt to the same level it has been, and is now, the UK could be at risk of seeing volcanic ash later this week," said Helen Chivers, Met Office spokeswoman. "Quite when and how much we can't really define at the moment."

Iceland is one of the world's most unstable countries, geologically speaking. Sitting astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American continental plates rub up against one another, Iceland is use to small earthquakes which push magma from deep underground toward the surface, making volcanic eruptions common.

The volcanic activity gives Iceland ample geothermal resources which they harness as a source of power and warm water. Volcanic eruptions in Iceland often spark flash flooding from melting glacier ice but rarely cause deaths.

Primarily they only affect local areas, but when they do draw the world's attention, it is in a spectacular way. An 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano spewed a toxic cloud over Europe, killing tens of thousands of people, killing crops and causing famine.

Image Courtesy Roger McLassus/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)