eyjafjallajökull: boiling basalt meets ice, enemies, friends

“Iceland! you’re going buckwild!!!!”
(comment on Iceland’s Facebook page, Apr 15/10)

steam vent from the March 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption (Flickr photo by Icelandic photographer Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson, Creative Commons attribution license)

You might think that an ice-cap and its attendant glaciers would weigh enough to keep a few rocks in place. But no, basalt at 1200C (see below) can do just about anything it wants to when it’s forced upwards by volcanic explosion, as the current activity in the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic system demonstrates.

Eyjafjallajokull is the sixth largest glacier in Iceland and is (or was?) cone-shaped. It’s located to the north of Skógar and to the west of the bigger glacier Myrdalsjokull.

photo of pre-eruption Eyjafjallajokull Glacier (http://iceland.vefur.is/iceland_nature)

As we all now know, its icecap covers a volcano (1,666 metres or 5,466 ft in height); it erupted a few times in the past millenium (in 920, in 1612, and between 1821–1823) and now twice this year.

If you’re anything like me, you don’t regularly read seismic activity pages and so you may also have missed knowing that the first series of eruption started way back on March 20.

photo Ólafur Sigurjónsson, March 25 (for more see http://en.vedur.is/about-imo/news/2010/nr/1858)

While eruptions seemed to subside on day nine, by April 5 lava fountains were still prominent, and it wasn’t until April 9 that the Institute of Earth Sciences (University of Iceland) went in to measure the new volcano in the area, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Society.

So what happened? A nifty science blog called Eruptions, written by geologist Erik Klemetti, explains:

After the original fissures ceased activity, the magma found a new route to the surface, this time underneath the Eyjafjallajökull glacier…. [A]n earthquake swarm arrived underneath the icecap, which prompted Icelandic officials to start evacuating people from the area around the volcano (photo from prior to this eruption) for fears for joklhlaups – volcanically-triggered glacial floods. These floods are started by the intense melting that occurs when basalt at 1200C meets ice – and they can be very powerful floods, moving car-to-house sized material with ease.

Currently, there are reports that the new fissure that has opened underneath the Eyjafjallajökull glacier has created a hole/crater ~200 meters deep…. Gunnar Gudmunsson of the Icelandic Met Office thinks most of the eruption is occurring at or near the summit of the volcano underneath the ice cap. This has, of course, lead to intense melting of the glacial ice, raising water levels in drainages leading from the volcano in some cases 3 meters in a matter of hours. The south of Iceland has been told to expect flooding due to the eruption. The walking bridge near Fimmvörduháls has also been taken out by the floods, while other measures are being taken to protect roadways.

NASA image showing new volcano vents on April 1/10

The impact on Icelanders so far seems to be manageable, fortunately, though not pleasant – about 800 residents near the Eyjafjallajökull glacier have been moved as rivers are rising. (I’m not wishing anyone the loss of their farmland, but by “manageable” I mean there are no deaths or reports of total property destruction. Cross fingers).

Icelandic website Ice News reports this about the flooding:

The volcano erupting under South Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier has opened a 2km long gorge and is already considered much bigger than the nearby Fimmvorduhals volcano which appears to have finally ended yesterday. Glacier water has already started flooding surrounding land and evacuation orders are in force.

Iceland’s main highway, Route 1, is being dug up south of the glacier in an attempt to save Markarfljots Bridge from the flood water.

Flood water is pouring off the glacier both to the north and the south, but both flows will enter the sea to the south.

Due to the evacuations, nobody is believed to be in danger and no towns or villages have been affected – although conditions can change rapidly.

And CBC reports from an interview with geophysicist Pall Einarsson, “magma was melting a hole in the thick ice covering the volcano’s crater, sending water coursing down the glacier.” Rivers in the area rose as much as 3 metres.

Socially outside Iceland: mayhem. We depend on planes, and so we equally depend on clear air for planes to fly through. Yesterday’s massive eruption threw so much ash into the air that jet engines would be mangled if they flew through it (back to Klemetti at Eruptions – “the silica glass shards that make up most ash can melt inside jet engines, causing them to stall – which could lead to crashing”).

photo courtesy Árni Sæberg, Icelandic Coast Guard

An interesting location for comments about this natural phenomenon is, believe it or not, on Facebook. I’ve been a fan for a few months now of the Facebook page for Iceland and it’s generally a site that plays up a marketing/tourism scheme of a place that could be your whimsical, slightly shy but likeable friend.

The “about me” section says “Iceland would like to be your friend,” for example (are Iceland and Canada cousins?). It’s pleasant and many of the pictures are gorgeous; about 25,700 people currently think so.

This morning, Iceland’s status read: Iceland apologizes for the inconvenience.

The remarks beneath that, and on the page all day, are a fantastic study in humanity – the desire to laugh, to insult, to comfort “Iceland,” to compose impetuous and uninformed scientific guesses about how the ash “will” cause a two-year-long winter or global crop failure, to predict apocalypse in both ironic and deadly serious tones.

The anthropomorphic age is still alive and well whether nor not we’re in the anthropocene age. Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

the humourists:

we wanted cash not ash!

It’s a very sneaky way to attack the UK. :p

Be careful with apologizing. The EU might tax your volcanic CO2 emissions and that would make the country bankrupt more than ever!

Hey, someone’s trying to blow up Iceland!!! I’m coming over as soon as I can…

How you all doin? Ya comin through this okay? Ya gotta quit smokin dear.

Is that the volcanic ash or all the uk companies that failed as a result of your negligence and terrorism?

Was it caused by all the money being lifted from the banks, taking weight off the island and thus making it easier for the magma to rise to the surface.

The Icelandic economy had one final wish….Spread my ashes over Europe

the futurists:

you shouldn’t ! Nature rules global economy … Fu** airplanes they just good to come and trip around your Gaïa sacred land ! 🙂 !

we’ll learn how to survive one or two days without planes. maybe it will turn out to be a useful lesson…

what happended in Iceland wasn’t a natural disaster! they don’t exist! Just the Earth is alive! since our Earth born this things exist!…just Nature!…but be strong people! all’s gonna be OK.!

I love it, it’s a fantastic display of the power of nature, reminding us who is really in charge. I wish all in Iceland are safe.

Just think of it as the hand God reaching and giving you a lesson in perspective. A fairly gentle one at that.

this is obviously a sign that the apocalypse is coming everyone repent for your sins now!!!

spread of ash from Eyjafjallajökull eruptions, April 14/10 – NASA photo

the growlers:

Dear Iceland, please hold the ash inside your mouth.
I want to fly home on sunday and with the ash in the air I had to stay longer in the USA. What have I done to you that you are so mean to me?

you better be sorry! almost missed a holiday in tenerife 😡

the silver linings:

Not a problem my friend… All of us, from time to time, have to let off a little steam.
Everyone blows off steam now and then, only tequila is involved in some cases … 🙂

Not a contrail over Southern Ireland, it looks really cool !

It’s brilliant, thanks to the ash my boyfriend can’t fly to a conference, so he most likely will actually be able to be here for my birthday this weekend, THANK YOU ICELAND!!! ♥ ♥ ♥

You put on a good firework show, gave people a day off, quieted the skies. Well done!

Thank you for the clear skies above europe ;p

it looks exciting, but nice of you to say this.

Hope you are feeling better soon, Iceland. We still love you very much. 🙂

Oh Iceland, I dont mind your nature getting a bit crazy on our finnish climate. Let’s hope you’ll be alright after all this fuzz.

Don’t you be worrying your wee self Iceland, the main thing is that you, your people and animals are all safe. I’m sure your insides will settle down soon. Rest easy my friend!! xx

anonymous fan-uploaded image on the companion site “I’m the Icelandic Volcano that Ruined your Flight Plans. sorry” possibly colour-enhanced?

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