A geothermal plant in Iceland
Iceland’s gigantic energy reserves, generated from renewable sources like geothermal vents, are all dressed up with nowhere to go—it’s too expensive to get power from the chilly island to anywhere else. But transporting data to and from the island is a different story. Iceland is starting to attract companies that build giant server farms, lured by the cheap electricity and the possibility of being able to market “green” power.
The Laki fissure’s eruption in Iceland was behind tens of thousands of deaths in the 1780s.
What’s the News: Iceland’s busy volcanoes have caused their share of air traffic snafus in Europe lately, but they have the potential to be deadly, not just inconvenient. A new model examining how air quality would change should the volcanoes erupt as spectacularly as they occasionally have in the past suggests that increased particulates in the air could kill more than 140,000 people in Europe in the year following the eruption.
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.
If past is prelude, then the volcanic eruption in Iceland whose plume of ash has grounded almost 300 flights across Europe may not only affect air travel in the coming days, it may also have a lingering impact on Europe’s weather. Experts are looking back to the aftereffects of a previous eruption–when the Laki volcano in Southern Iceland exploded more than 200 years ago. That explosion had catastrophic consequences for weather, agriculture and transport across the northern hemisphere – and helped trigger the French revolution [The Guardian].
The Laki volcanic fissure erupted over a eight month period between June 1783 and February 1784. Within Iceland, the lava and poisonous clouds of gas ushered in a time known as the “Mist Hardships”: farmland was ruined, livestock died in vast numbers, and the resultant famine killed almost a quarter of the population.
The eruption’s impact wasn’t confined to Iceland alone. Dust and sulfur particles thrown up by the explosion were carried as a haze across Northern Europe, clouding the skies in Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In conjunction with another volcanic eruption and an unusually strong El Nino weather pattern, the Laki eruption is thought to have contributed to extreme weather across Europe for the next several years.
Don’t be fooled by the name—Iceland is one of the hottest hotspots in the world, geologically speaking. The island’s volcanic legacy reared its head again yesterday as a massive eruption by a volcano beneath a glacier caused the evacuation of hundreds of residents and created ash clouds that delayed flights all around Northern Europe.
The volcano, called Eyjafjallajokull, rumbled last month, but that was nothing like this. “This is a very much more violent eruption, because it’s interacting with ice and water,” said Andy Russell, an expert in glacial flooding at the University of Newcastle in northern England. “It becomes much more explosive, instead of a nice lava flow oozing out of the ground” [AP]. The flood caused by melted glacial ice caused the evacuation about 800 people. Waters threatened to spill over onto Highway 1, Iceland’s main highway that makes a circuit around the island. But some quick digging by construction crews altered the course of the water.