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Thar She Blows

How Irish scientists are keeping the government up to date on that Icelandic volcano

Remember Eyjafjallajokull? Everyone’s trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen all over again…

IF YOU CAN stretch your mind back as far as 2010, you may remember all the chaos caused by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.

Iceland Volcano Remember this? AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Flights were delayed, passengers were left stranded across Europe, and airline bosses were left furious about how much money they lost as the volcano brought air travel around the continent to a slow halt over a period of weeks.

Now, four years on, another volcano – the slightly less vowel-heavy Bárdarbunga  -  is threatening to erupt in the south-east of Iceland; but this time around, things are different.

“Everything now is driven by what happened back in 2010 because Europe didn’t respond very well to that,” says Professor Chris Bean of UCD diplomatically.

And this includes Irish scientists, who are not only monitoring the Bárdarbunga volcano for early warning signs of an eruption, but are keeping the government informed about it on a daily basis. This is serious business.

Emergency task force 

So how does this work? Every day since the volcano began to look as though it could erupt, the Geological Survey of Ireland has been putting together an update with the latest news on Bárdarbunga and whether it’s any closer to erupting. The updates are unexpectedly readable – you can see one here.

“They’re not too interested in the geophysics of a volcano,” says Dr Brian McConnell of the GSI. “They want to know whether any ash will affect air travel, whether there will be pollutants in the ash, things like that”.

Iceland A cluster of earthquakes last night around Bardabunga. Icelandic Met Office Icelandic Met Office

“They” is the Office of Emergency Planning, which, as the name suggests, organises the government’s plan for major emergencies – it is also monitoring the Ebola crisis in Africa at the moment –  and has been taking advice from different groups about the volcano. In this case, obviously, the discussions are pre-emptive and more about planning for what will happen if it does erupt.

“These updates are for information,” says McConnell. “We’re letting them know that we’re watching this, even while there hasn’t been an eruption”.

Emergency planning

Right now, he can just email in the daily reports. The emergency taskforce with representatives from relevant departments (such as Transport) will only be convened if the volcano actually  erupts.

“This is the first time since Eyjafjallajokull that emergency planning in Ireland has had to pay attention to a possible volcanic eruption,” he says.

‘Like a messy cardiograph’

And where do they get their data? The Geological Survey of Ireland is able to put together the detailed reports for the government based on information gathered from geophysics researchers just a few miles down the road in UCD.

These researchers are right at the lava face (sorry) of Bárdarbunga: working with other EU groups and the Icelandic Met Office, they have installed seismometers on the giant glacier in Iceland where the volcano is located which can detect any ground vibrations.

Professor Chris Bean, a geophysicist at UCD, describes the signals they receive as looking like “a really messy cardiograph”.

The data comes back to their lab in Dublin in real time, meaning they can monitor what’s happening at the volcano as it happens and provide an early warning system.

“If an eruption starts in the bottom of a glacier, you have 12 hours before it comes into the atmosphere,” explains Bean. “What we’re trying to do is to determine the signals for that kind of activity.”

Our aim is to look for the warning when it is all starting. It gives us a window to be able to issue some warnings.

Why Iceland?

The unusual thing about Bárdarbunga and Eyjafjallajokull is that despite what you may think,  because the volcanoes are covered by ice, the eruptions can be much more explosive.

“The meltwater interacts with the lava and it pulverises the rock into ash,” explains Bean. “That pulverisation process occurs more readily when you add water to the mix, and the water makes the whole thing more explosive”.

The reason the monitoring sensors were put in place at Bárdarbunga was simply because of the high number of volcanoes.

Iceland Volcano Ash rising from Eyjafjallajoku in 2010 Associated Press Associated Press

“The current activity is all taking place underneath the biggest glacier in Europe,” explains Bean.

“We put the censors on the western flank of the glacier after Eyjafjallajokull, and they’ve been there for  a year.

The reason we put them where they are is that there are several volcanoes under this glacier and it’s an area where eventually one was going to have an eruption because there are so many. So it was pre-emptive.

As well as being used for Irish authorities, the information from the UCD researchers is just one part of the puzzle that Icelandic authorities are using to put together the jigsaw.

“It’s an added piece for themselves that they’re not doing locally,” says Bean.

The whole Europe-wide project which UCD is part of is called FutureVolc and it’s “an attempt to improve the way we respond to volcanic eruptions in Iceland”.

Will it erupt? 

People are prepped for worst case eventualities,  but the big question is: will Bárdarbunga actually erupt?

ICELAND VOLCANO Eyjafjallajokull AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Iceland has already evacuated some tourists from the area close to Bárdarbunga because of the seismic activity that has been recorded since last Saturday.  The Icelandic Met Office has raised its aviation alert to orange, the second-highest level, to signal the heightened risk of eruption.

However despite that, “it’s still too early to say,” says McConnell.

The behaviour now is consistent with an underground movement of magma. It could turn around – or it could be forced up to the surface. But we don’t know yet what will happen.

Either way, it’s an interesting time for geologists.

“It’s dramatic science,” says Brian McConnell. “Short deadlines like this are not something that geologists normally have to deal with”.

Read: Iceland warns of possible volcanic eruption, raises alert level > 

Read: Iceland evacuates tourists over heightened volcano eruption risk > 

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