Iceland volcano watch: further analysis

As the panic over Iceland’s phantom volcano slowly dies down, we take a closer look at what happened.

The scare happened when the British press took comments from Professor Pall Einarsson, geophysicist, about a recent spate of earthquakes near the Badarbunga volcano. The story became more shocking and more imminent with each re-telling; leading the Icelandic Meteorological Office to release highly unusual notices stating that a volcanic eruption was NOT starting. The Met Office stressed that it would be the first to know of any new eruption and that it would tell the world immediately.

At its core, the scare was probably caused by still-raw memories of last year’s Eyjafjallajokull eruption in London newspaper offices and the good old language barrier. According to colleagues at Iceland Review, the entire media swirl probably began with one, fairly ordinary, article published on Monday.

The article translates quotes made by Professor Pall Einarsson to RUV on the recent spate of earthquakes in the area. The main focus of the news article was that scientists would like more sensors in the area to help them better understand what is happening there. Einarsson made no conclusions about the earthquakes; saying that they could be remnants of the last eruption, or a precursor to an upcoming eruption. The British press took this to mean that an eruption is imminent — when in fact nothing may happen there for many years, if at all.

One thing is certain though, according to geologist Ari Trausti Gudmundsson, “The average eruption rate in Iceland is one eruption every 4-5 years or so. Sometimes a number of them may occur within a decade but a decade may pass with only one eruption, or none. So we will see an eruption in the future but today there is no indication of where or when.”

Gudmundsson reiterated in a recent article that, despite the seismic activity in the area, there is no reason to believe an eruption is starting; adding that when one does begin sometime in the future, there is a good chance it will be small.

Pall Einarsson told IceNews that Iceland has experienced some 19 eruptions in just the last 40 years — most of which have been more of a marvel than a menace to residents and tourists.

Volcanoes are notoriously unpredictable and an eruption could begin with very short notice — but this has been the case since Iceland was settled over a thousand years ago and modern monitoring and safety procedures ensure that, with a little common sense, everyone remains safe.

Main page photo: the 2010 Eykjafjallajokull eruption / Anders Peter Amsnæs