Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Boom time: predicting Iceland's volcanoes

Studies show an average 44-year gap between Icelandic eruptions such as at Eyjafjallajökull Studies show an average 44-year gap between Icelandic eruptions such as at Eyjafjallajökull Gardar Olafsson/shutterstock
04 Feb
2017
Fears that volcano eruptions in Iceland are set to regularly disrupt air travel are being tempered by a new study into the frequency of such events

The volcano Eyjafjallajökull became famous after April 2010, when it erupted over several months, blanketing northern Europe in vast ash clouds. Flights were halted across the continent for nearly a week as a result of fears that airborne material would prove hazardous for aircraft. Across Europe, the skies fell quiet as the usual buzzing of aircraft overhead vanished.

‘In 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, people were really shocked – it seemed to come completely out of the blue,’ says Dr Graeme Swindles, Associate Professor of Earth System Dynamics in the School of Geography at Leeds. ‘The last time volcanic ash clouds affected northern Europe before the recent event was in 1947, 70 years ago – but aviation was much less intense at that time and it simply didn’t have the same sort of impact.’

Swindles is co-author of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds in the wake of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – as well as a smaller, similar incident caused the following year by Grímsvötn, another Icelandic volcano – to determine how frequent these kinds of events are likely to be in the future. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption registered a Volcanic Explosivity Index rating of 4, the level at which ejected volcanic material would begin to interfere with aviation. Could it be that the second half of the 20th century – when the commercial aviation industry had taken off – had conveniently coincided with a remarkable period of low volcanic activity in the region, one which nobody had noticed because it had never been a major issue before?

Reliable estimates of the frequency of volcanic ash events could help airlines, insurance companies and the travelling public mitigate the economic losses and disruption caused by ash clouds in the future

‘Although it is possible that ash clouds can occur on an annual basis,’ stresses Swindles, ‘the average return interval for the last 1,000 years is around 44 years. Our research shows that, over thousands of years, these sorts of incidents are not that rare – but people wondering how likely it is that the 2010 chaos will be repeated in the next few years can feel reassured.’

The study reached the 44-year average interval figure – a slightly smaller interval than had previously been believed – by examining new core samples from peatlands and lake beds in mainland northern Europe, the UK, Ireland and the Faroe Islands, as well as existing samples from across the continent, to reconstruct a history of similar volcanic eruptions over the past 7,000 years. By identifying tiny shards of preserved volcanic ash named cryptotephra, they were able to estimate the average frequency of volcanic ash clouds blowing across the continent over the past millennium. Furthermore, they concluded that these types of ash clouds have about a 20 per cent chance of occurring in northern Europe in any one decade.

‘Reliable estimates of the frequency of volcanic ash events could help airlines, insurance companies and the travelling public mitigate the economic losses and disruption caused by ash clouds in the future,’ emphasises lead author Dr Liz Watson, also from the Leeds School of Geography.

This was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

NGOs shine a light on the underreporting of wildlife crime…

Wildlife

Pioneering laser photography is being used by scientists on the…

Geophoto

Annual competition looks to celebrate island life in all its…

Oceans

Increasing interest in offshore aquaculture is dividing environmentalists

Energy

Well-meaning promises don’t always have positive outcomes. Marco Magrini finds…

Wildlife

The RSPB introduces a new hotline for reporting the unlawful…

Wildlife

With the death earlier this week of the world’s last…

Geophoto

The essence of street photography is its raw, unfiltered, unstaged…

Energy

For Marco Magrini, a tax on fossil fuels would be…

Wildlife

Half of animal species in world’s most biodiverse areas could…

Wildlife

Four-year project to reestablish safe breeding grounds for seabirds on…

Wildlife

First global atlas of soil bacteria reveals a small minority…

Polar

Scientists discover how shrubs are dominating the Arctic tundra

Wildlife

War and conservation have a complicated relationship, with two studies…

Climate

Why is Europe so cold right now? Marco Magrini suggests…

Wildlife

Threatened Californian owls are suffering from digesting rat poison administered…

Oceans

With the majority of the ocean still remaining undiscovered, a…

Oceans

Belize bans offshore oil extraction to protect the second longest…

Geophoto

With their horns still much-prized by poachers, will the revered…

Wildlife

Narwhals show a complex response to interaction with humans and…