Iceland’s Doomsday Volcanoes

03 Jan

In mid-2010 the Iceland volcano Eyja erupted for 8 months, causing major disruptions to air travel across the Atlantic and within Europe

There was a terrific program on Public Broadcasting’s NOVA  last night (January 2, 2013) about the world’s explosive volcanoes and their wide-ranging global effects. (You can watch the program on your computer here). Although notable volcanic eruptions worldwide were featured, including the devastating1982 Mount St Helens explosion that effected the whole Pacific Northwest, NOVA focused primarily on the so-called doomsday volcanoes of Iceland that lie along the tectonic spreading zone of the North Atlantic Ridge. Based upon geologic and historic evidence, vulcanologists say these Iceland volcanoes could erupt at any time, spreading havoc throughout the northern hemisphere by damaging human health, jeopardizing food supplies, disrupting air transportation, injuring ecosystems, and temporarily changing North America and Europe’s weather and climate.

Like hundreds of thousands of other travelers, I too had my 2010 summer travel plans disrupted by one of these ill-tempered Iceland volcanoes. Ironically, several years earlier I had hiked its snow-covered slopes during a two-week trip to Iceland. I’ve included some photos from those travels elsewhere in this post.

As you may remember it was the volcano Eyjafjallajökull (“Eyja” for short) that erupted in 2010 spewing its ash and dust into the North Atlantic skies for 8 months, creating major problems for travelers and the air travel industry. Because volcanic ash and dust can damage jet engines, thousands of flights were cancelled as the dust cloud drifted about the northern hemisphere. More details about Eyja’s 2010 eruption can be found here.

Less well documented but perhaps even more damaging than Eyja was the 1783 eruption of another Iceland volcano, Laki. Archival evidence suggests that this event killed off 20-25% of Iceland’s population, either directly through explosions and lava flows or indirectly from low-level air pollution that caused respiratory illness and death. Widespread famine from failed crops was also responsible for increased mortality in both Iceland and Europe itself.  More information about that historic eruption and its widespread effects are here.

As implied earlier in this post, these past eruptions, recent and historic, are of interest because they provide invaluable information on the probability and potential for future volcanic eruptions. Certainly one of the fascinations of this NOVA program is learning how scientists collect and analyze data about past eruptions so that better forecasts can be made regarding future eruptions. As well, the program also contains interesting content about how different public agencies are preparing for the inevitable next major eruption.


Schematic map of the North Atlantic Ridge and the volcanic zone it creates in Iceland


A not-so-dramatic photo of Eyja before its 2010 eruption taken by Les Rowntree when he was hiking in the area

flood area

One of the local problems in Iceland caused by volcanoes is that when they heat up inside (whether or not it leads to an eruption), this warming causes devastating floods are the glaciers when the volcano melt suddenly. This photo is of one of those flood zones on the southeastern coast of Iceland

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Posted by on January 3, 2013 in Global Environment


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