What we know about the Iceland volcano and risk of an ash plume

The most disruptive in recent times was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which grounded flights across Europe for days because of fears ash could damage airplane engines

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Residents of Iceland are bracing for a potential volcanic eruption after the ground violently split open in Grindavik as magma — semi-molten rock — snaked under the earth. On Nov. 11, officials evacuated the town of 3,400, which sits on the Reykjanes Peninsula, about 50 kilometres southwest of the capital, Reykjavik. Recurring earthquakes have caused huge cracks throughout the town. The Icelandic Meteorological Office said there is a “significant likelihood” that an eruption will occur somewhere along a 15-kilometre magma tunnel, with the “prime location” an area north of Grindavik near the Hagafell mountain. Iceland sits above a volcanic hot spot in the North Atlantic and averages an eruption every four to five years.

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The most disruptive in recent times was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which spewed huge clouds of ash into the atmosphere and grounded flights across Europe for days because of fears ash could damage airplane engines. Farkhounda Azizullah spoke to Russell Pysklywec, an earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto, about the likelihood of a volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula, and how it could differ from the one in 2010.

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What can Iceland do to prepare?

Well, really, what they’re doing. I mean any of the hazards, actually, for an event like this are fairly local. So it’s really kind of getting people out of those areas that seem to be affected. One question some people had asked is whether this could be a repeat of the events we saw back in 2010, when the major volcano erupted and modified air travel and all of that, it’s probably not going to be the same. So this will probably be more localized to what’s going on there. And so, as long as they get people out of there, and people are aware that this is going to happen. It’s about the best we can do right now.

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Is there any risk of a huge ash plume that could shut down air travel, like in 2010?

Yeah, probably not. I mean, it’s hard to say never, or for sure not. But it’s kind of a different type of magma or lava that’s down there. This one’s a little less volatile. So it has, it’s a bit more fluid and it’s able to expel its gases a little bit more easily. That event back in 2010 was a bit more unstable. It was kind of a stickier magma, and there was more solid rock involved. And so gas is built up and it essentially exploded, erupted more violently than what we’re going to expect here. Of course, we don’t know for sure it’s going to erupt here. But if it does, it’s going to be a little bit more stable of an eruption.

How dangerous will it be if the volcano does erupt?

Magma is very, very hot and dangerous. It’s gonna destroy buildings nearby. It probably won’t travel super far, but in areas around there, yeah, it’s very dangerous. And it’s unpredictable, too. I mean, if we think we have an idea where this magma channel is, it could be in other places as well. And it’s hard to predict where it’s going to come out, where it’s going to erupt and how it’s going to erupt. We can hope that it’s going to be certainly a lesser event than 2010, say in terms of ejecting ash and things, but it can still be very, very violent.

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How did a magma tunnel appeared underground?

It’s an interesting question. It’s a little hard for us to figure out because these features are fairly deep, it’s a few kilometres underground, right? We don’t really get a good view of it. I mean, it’s essentially magma, we have hot material, Iceland sits on the boundary between two tectonic plates. So we know there’s hot material rising there. Once we melt rock, it becomes magma and that magma then is like a liquid. And so it’s shifting around down there. And it’s a little hard to predict. So how did that magma form in that kind of tunnel? We don’t really know. It’s just, you know, a liquid-type molten rock that moves around the way it wants to. So it’s a little bit unpredictable.

Are the earthquakes linked to the volcano?

It’s essentially releasing stress deep in the surface. And so the magma is moving around. And so it changes the stress state deeper in the earth. And that is what causes the fracturing of the planet and the rupturing, which is the earthquakes.

What risks do the earthquakes pose to civilians?

With the earthquakes in particular… they are causing some rupturing and things. There’s kind of general tectonic activity going on. There is major ground deformation. So ruptures and stuff like that can cause damage. It’s interesting, though the earthquakes actually aren’t the biggest ones we see around; they’re fairly minor, just quick events. So from those, there’s probably not imminent danger of structures collapsing from the earthquakes. It’s more so any volcanic activity that might spawn from these events.

National Post, with additional reporting by Associated Press

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