Earthquake swarms are shaking up a large ice-capped volcano in Iceland, raising worries of an eruption that could trigger flooding and send ash clouds into the atmosphere.
Back in 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökul volcano erupted, spewing ash for miles into the air and causing widespread chaos. Airlines around Europe shut down for six days, for fear the volcanic ash could harm jet engines. Millions of passengers were left stranded.
Now there’s another big volcano in Iceland making ominous noises. Bárđarbunga is part of a volcano system underneath a massive glacier in the center of the center of the country. Since Saturday, seismologists have detected some 3,000 earthquakes in the region- a sign that magma may be on the move.
Bárđarbunga volcano is the country’s second highest mountain at 6,560 feet. It lies in the remote central region of Iceland under the largest glacier, Vatnajökull. The ice above the volcano’s central caldera is about 2,300 feet thick.
So far, there’s no sign that the magma is migrating upward- and it’s entirely possible the volcano won’t erupt at all- but Iceland is currently on high alert. On August 21, the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) said there are “no measurements to suggest that an eruption is imminent,” but can’t yet rule out an eruption either. Authorities are evacuating the surrounding areas just in case.
No one lives near the volcano, but with nearly one temblor striking per minute, officials have evacuated tourists from the area north of it, where floodwaters would flow. The officials have also elevated air travel warnings to “orange” levels, which they define as meaning the “volcano shows heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption.”
An eruption’s not yet a certainty. The IMO is insisting that they haven’t yet seen any sign that magma is moving toward the surface. So far, all the activity has remained 3 to 7 miles underground-- that is, the magma still appears to be moving horizontally. The agency is continuing to monitor the situation.
Dave McGarvie, a researcher who works on Icelandic volcanoes, explains there are a couple of ways that things could unfold. One, it’s possible that nothing could happen, and the magma will simply remain beneath the surface. Alternatively, perhaps there will be a minor eruption that doesn’t penetrate the glacier—that would cause lots of flooding, but it might not spew much ash in the air.
Finally, McGarvie notes, we could see a really big eruption that breaks through the ice. A lot depends on where, exactly, the eruption occurs, what form it takes, and how thick the ice above the eruption is.
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