In those volcanoes that kids (or their parents) build for elementary school science fairs, the style is generally simple: There’s one chamber in which the baking soda rests, ready to meet the vinegar and erupt. Most real volcanoes are a little like this, in that they have a single magma chamber that fuels their eruptions.
But not Eyjafjallajökull.
The Icelandic volcano that stirred in March and grounded European air travel has a peculiar kind of plumbing, scientists report today in Nature. Freysteinn Sigmundsson and colleagues combined 20 years’ worth of GPS, satellite, and seismic observations of the volcano see note how it changed over the years—and especially what was happening in the lead-up to this year’s eruption.
Six days after ash from Iceland’s volcano paralyzed European airspace, aviation experts and academics are arguing over whether the entire mess could have been avoided.
Ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano started to spread across North European skies last week, grounding thousands of domestic and long-haul flights and causing an estimated $1 billion in losses. Today the European Union attempted to get the continent moving again and reopened certain routes, giving millions of stranded passengers a chance to head home and throwing a lifeline to airlines that were hemorrhaging an estimated $250 million a day.
However, this grounding of flights drew sharp rebuke from Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who argued that the entire mess could have been avoided had the airlines focused on facts and figures on actual damage caused to jet engines by volcanic ash, saying: “Europe was using a theoretical mathematical approach and this is not what you need. We needed some test flights to go into the atmosphere and assess the level of ashes and take decisions” [Reuters]. Unsurprisingly, the European Union’s transit officials have replied that they’re not willing to compromise on passenger safety.
The volcanic eruption in Iceland that has disrupted air traffic in Europe is also a reminder that other volcanoes in the region could wake up if global warming continues unabated, experts say.
Scientists say that if large icecaps on the island melt, they’ll ease the pressure on the rocks beneath the surface. Lifting the weight off the rocks would allow for more magma production, which could set off other eruptions. Says volcanologist Freysteinn Sigmundsson: “Our work suggests that eventually there will be either somewhat larger eruptions or more frequent eruptions in Iceland in coming decades” [Scientific American].
Scientists clarified that while the current Eyjafjallajokull eruption occurred beneath a small glacier in Iceland, the explosion was not caused by global warming. The Eyjafjallajokull glacier is too small and light to have an impact on local geology, they say.