Weather satellites capture shots of volcanic plume blasting through clouds

By Phil Plait | May 23, 2011 10:06 am

[Note: at the bottom of this post is a gallery of volcano pictures taken from space.]

Just in case you forgot that the Earth is one of the most geologically active worlds in the solar system*, the Icelandic volcano Grimsvötn has sent a very loud reminder: after seven years of relative inactivity, the volcano woke up on Saturday, rocketing a plume 11 kilometers (7 miles) into the air. The ash column blasted through the cloud layer, and was seen by weather satellites in space! Check out this amazing animation:

That was the view from the Meteosat-9, a European satellite in geostationary orbit. The animation is composed of visible light images and covers just under a three hour time span on May 21. You can clearly see the plume breaching the cloud layer and spreading out, then a second plume blowing through shortly thereafter. The shadow of the plume on the clouds gives an excellent but eerie sense of the scale of this event.

Here’s a similar view from the US GOES 13 satellite showing 3.5 hours of the eruption:

Note the oblique angle and distance; GOES 13 orbits the Earth far west of the volcano. In the last frame of the animation you can see the outline of Iceland to give you an idea of the size of this event.

This volcano has erupted many times over the past few decades. I knew Iceland was active, but what really brought it home to me in this case was a quote by a company that operates the airport facilities in Iceland, when a 220 km no-fly zone around the volcano was established: it was described as "standard procedure around eruptions".

Yikes. The fact that they even need a "standard procedure" is eyebrow-raising to me; where I live, volcanoes are somewhat rare (maybe more so now than a millennia ago). However, this eruption doesn’t currently look like it will be a big danger to air travel like last year’s eruption of Eyjafjalajökull was; the ash is made of bigger particles which fall to the ground more quickly, and the volcano itself is located in a relatively isolated part of southeast Iceland.

Still, clearly, researching volcanoes and their eruptions is critical to many areas of life. Besides the knowledge added to our basic scientific understanding of geology and the Earth, monitoring and understanding volcanoes has a huge impact on air traffic, weather, and the daily lives of millions of people.

Image credits: CIMSS, UW-Madison (from images by EUMETSAT and NOAA). Tip o’ the caldera to Jonatan Gislason.

I love these satellite views of volcanoes from space, and I’ve collected quite a few into a gallery slideshow. Click the thumbnail picture to get a bigger picture and more information, and scroll through the gallery using the left and right arrows.]

* Jupiter’s moon Io actually beats us in that category.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (24)


    When was the last time that thing erupted?

  2. Why does it appear to flow to the right of the first image when all of the clouds seem to be going left?

  3. AJKamper

    I presume this is caused by the Supermoon? I mean, what’s a month late among friends?

  4. Bill

    OMGZ! It’s the e-Rupture! It was true!!1!1one


  5. Quiet Desperation

    The Earth needs a Zantac, although Mars swears by Pepto.

  6. Oli

    Why aren’t there any Earth-studying satellites that don’t look straight down but look down at an angle?

  7. Steve Metzler

    When was the last time that thing erupted?

    2004. It’s a different volcano. In fact, it’s Iceland’s most active volcano, Grimsvötn, and this is the worst eruption since 1873. Some good piccies here:

    Grimsvötn eruption, 2011. Pics and story

    I live in Ireland, so expection flight disruption to start any day now…

  8. Matt B.

    @2, Endyo. Winds at different elevations travel in different directions.

  9. Actually, the Grimsvotn ash plume topped out at close to 20 km / 65,000 feet according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Probably the largest plume in Iceland since Hekla in 1947 – impressive to say the least but not likely to cause the havoc of Eyjafjallajokull last year. Check out some of the details on my blog if you’re interested:

  10. @Matt B. I didn’t even think about that. You don’t really get a sense for the massive amount of elevation difference from so far away.

  11. Amazing Photos! Ok, so there is no secret rapture, we knew that! So back to the Great Tribulation that all Christians must go thru before Jesus Christ returns. And there will be nothing secret about it because “every eye shall see.” (Rev. 1:7) “For as lightning comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Mat. 24:27) I am dedicated to helping Christians learn how to stand firm and not be easily shaken by the distress coming upon the world in the last days. No matter how bad it gets remember that God loves you. Posted by Rev. Daniel W. Blair

  12. Thameron

    Perhaps they should change the name to Ice and Fire Land.

  13. Andrew S

    @Oli: there are; in terms of imaging sensors, MISR, POLDER/PARASOL, and the ATSRs are polar-orbiters which have multiple views (near-nadir and different angles).

    The geostationary ones are also observing at different angles, dependent on what your point of interest on the Earth is (you can see the GOES-West view is pretty oblique).


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