Airline passengers in Scotland and parts of Northern England face delays and cancelled flights today due to Saturday’s ash eruption from Grímsvötn volcano in Iceland. These scenes are similar to those in April 2010 when another Icelandic volcano – Eyjafjallajökull – erupted, prompting widespread travel chaos. However, scientists and commentators expect the disruption to be far less than last year for a number of meteorological reasons and improved aviation regulations. Transport Secretary Philip Hammond claims authorities have a “much better understanding” of the risks and that “the threshold for most aircraft is 20 times where it was last year…What we can’t promise is that there won’t be disruption when there is a major natural event like this.”
Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer reflected on last year’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption in a recent article in The Geographical Journal. They reviewed the scientific background of the eruption in the context of European volcanic activity and argued that “the apparent breakdown of communication between scientific research, policy makers and the public is a manifestation of a wider problem”. Furthermore, they claimed that “transdisciplinary channels for the movement of knowledge beyond the academic community need to be enhanced” (2011: 4). In light of this new eruption at Grímsvötn, and the supposed provisions and increased levels of governance in planning for such eventualities, the coming days and weeks will reveal to what extent lessons have already been learned.
Eyjafjallajöekul, taken by NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite, 1st April 2010
As ash from the Eyjafjallajöekull eruption in Iceland drifted across Europe earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) admitted that the health risks were uncertain. Contrasting news stories emerged. On 15th April, the BBC News Website published the reassuring headline, “Iceland volcano ash is ‘no threat to human health’.” The next day, The Daily Telegraph opened an article with a slightly more alarming title: “Volcanic ash can kill thousands but unlikely to drop on Britain.”
In a recent paper in Geography Compass, Gail Millar and others review methods for measuring the risk to human health from particulate matter – small particles of ash, dust or pollution suspended in the atmosphere. The difficulties of collecting information about volcanic ash rapidly become apparent. Flights were banned over the UK, so scientists were limited in their ability to collect data about the concentration of ash. The consequences of falling ash for people are also complicated by differences in the vulnerability of different individuals (e.g. children, the elderly) and their exposure (requiring knowledge about individuals’ activity).
Because extreme events are rare, there is clearly a need for more research into their outcomes. Geographers are well placed to understand the combination of physical and human processes that control the impact of extreme events.
Iceland is at present living up to its epithet of a land of ice and fire since the most recent volcanic eruption took place on 20th March 2010. Quiet for the last 120 years, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano awoke, disgorging lava fountains and flows and later plumes of volcanic dust. However, as far as natural disasters go, according to Degg and Chesters (2006) writing in The Geographical Journal, earthquakes, droughts, floods and windstorms are the four major players in terms of losses, which claimed almost two million lives between 1900 and the time of writing. In contrast volcanic eruptions over the same time period caused less than 100,000 deaths. Commonly, volcanic hazards are spatially more restricted than other natural hazards, but Eyjafjallajökull has proved to be an exception, causing widespread disruption to air travel over Europe.
NASA who have been monitoring the event using satellite artificial intelligence are concerned that this eruption might be a precursor to another larger eruption at the Katla volcano nearby and if this is the case they will be ready to provide imaging data of any eruption as it progresses. On the ground, earthquake and volcanic activity is monitored by the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) which observes earth movements via GPS monitors, water conditions and weather and issues warnings based on these observations. In addition, the IMO has weather radar situated at the southwest tip of Iceland which aids in calculating the height of the ash plume which is essential for determining the distribution of the ash. Allaying the fears of NASA, as of the 20th April the IMO have measured no earthquakes at Katla and GPS measurements do not indicate a forthcoming eruption.
As for how long Eyjafjallajökull will continue to erupt; the answer is blowing in the wind. Volcanologists can only speculate, although the last time that the volcano erupted in 1821 it continued to erupt from time to time over a period of a year.