Lava Erupts At Iceland’s Indecisive Volcano

To erupt, or not to erupt? That is the question for Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano, who has shown signs of indecision.

The volcano’s heightened seismic activity began on August 16. Iceland’s Met Office reported lava flows Friday evening, when magma broke through a rift in the volcano’s older lava flow, creating a new fissure around 0.6 miles long.

Iceland scientists are camped near the Bárðarbunga volcano and have been monitoring the eruption. Live footage of the volcano can be seen here.

The volcano itself is buried under Iceland’s Vatnajkull ice cap. According to Fox News, the ice cap is about 1,310 to 1,970 feet thick. To monitor the volcano’s activity:

“Scientists must monitor earthquakes, changes in water levels and the glacier’s surface to detect a subglacial eruption.”

That the Bárðarbunga volcano is covered by a glacier is no small matter. As of now, the glacier is keeping the eruption from spewing ash (fragmented magma) into the air. According to geology professor Andy Hooper, the chances that the Bárðarbunga volcano will spew ash and disrupt air travel are low:

“If an eruption occurs beneath the ice cap…there is still a matter of hundreds of metres of ice to melt through before any ash can reach the atmosphere. Although this can happen in a matter of hours in the right circumstances. The more immediate effect would be large floods from the meltwater, with potential risk to human life. The authorities in Iceland have therefore evacuated hundreds of people from the highlands north of the Vatnajökull glacier.”

In 2010, eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed large amounts of ash into the same air elevation used by transatlantic flights, grounding air traffic for almost a week while stranding millions of travelers and costing millions of dollars. Dr. Hooper says the Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption was different:

“The ash in that case was especially fine, allowing it to stay aloft for longer [while] dry air and consistent northerly winds causing the ash to spread deep into Europe.”

But others are less optimistic. Nick Petford, a volcano expert at the University of Northampton in Britain, says the Bárðarbunga volcano’s fissure eruptions follow the same pattern as Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010.

“Exactly the same thing happened in 2010 with the Eyjafjallajokull volcano […] The main eruption was in April, but in March there was a fissure eruption which was a precursor to the much larger eruption.”

Many factors control volcano events, making them hard to predict. Reuters reports that as of now, Iceland has lifted all airspace restrictions related to the volcano eruption. But minor seismic activity continues throughout the volcano’s Icelandic neighborhood.