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Don Paul: In popular tourist spot, giant volcano is overdue for eruption

So what’s the “news hook” for Western New York if Iceland has a major volcanic eruption?

Iceland may not be a hot place meteorologically, but it is a HOT place for tourism. A great part of its beauty and majesty which draws tourists is also due to its being a hot spot for geological activity. This beautiful and unique island draws hundreds of thousands of American tourists. More than a million travelers from Europe and the U.S. visit Iceland annually, with its small population of 330,000. I know of a number of people, including one of my daughters, who have toured Iceland and were entranced with its beauty, its friendly population and the low cost as a destination.

I learned of this pending crisis in a post by Dr. Joe D'Aleo on the Weatherbell subscription website. He linked his brief discussion on high latitude volcanism to an article in Icelandic Magazine. That magazine clearly has no vested interest in damaging tourism in its own backyard. The article was well sourced, and here is some of the gist of it.

Katla is described as a giant, dangerous volcano beneath a large glacier. Volcanologists, seismologists and geologists say it is overdue for an eruption. Katla appears to have erupted 22 times since the year 1100, when Iceland was first settled. The volcano has a track record of erupting every 40-80 years, and its last known eruption was in 1918. It is not far from another dangerous volcano, located just to its west.

A 2010 eruption of that neighboring volcano caused tremendous disruption, especially for air travel. The particulate matter in the large gaseous eruption made it too dangerous for airliners to fly in the Icelandic region, for fear of particle ingestion and critical damage to aircraft engines.

There is confirmation Katla’s magma chambers are filling. A group of British and Icelandic geologists have just completed a research mission which points to enormous emissions of carbon dioxide from Katla. They are convinced the CO2 emissions cannot be explained by more typical geothermal activity. They believe there is important increased volcanic magma buildup. University of Leeds volcanologist Evgenia Ilyinskaya told the Icelandic National Icelandic Broadcasting Service: "It is well known from other volcanoes, for example in Hawaii and Alaska, that CO2 emissions increase weeks or years ahead of eruptions. This is a clear sign we need to keep a close eye on Katla. She isn't just doing nothing, and these findings confirm that there is something going on."

To be sure, however overdue Katla may be, no scientist can predict whether the coming eruption is weeks, months, or still years off in the future. They can only state there is growing confidence there will be a major eruption.

One fear expressed by some Icelandic authorities is their limited ability to give much of a timely warning to tourists in Katla’s vicinity of an eruption. The warning time for alerts could be as little as 15 minutes. Warnings would go out to all mobile devices, but tests show signal coverage in that mountainous region seems to be spotty, due to the terrain. Authorities fear tourists on the glacier may not receive the warnings at all.

One of the problems with Katla and other Icelandic volcanoes (virtually every mountain in Iceland is volcanic) is that they are covered by a tremendously thick ice cap, sometimes more than 2,000 feet deep. Instead of the kinds of relatively tamer lava flows we often see elsewhere, this capping leads to cataclysmic steam explosions.

The buildup of heat from the rising magma in these circumstances will also lead to vast, destructive glacial outflow flash flooding within hours of the eruption. The largest volume of recorded volcanic glacial floods has produced a flow rate 15 times greater than that of the Mississippi River.

And, there is the aforementioned risk to aviation safety from the ash cloud.

Tourists should know Iceland is actively working to lessen some risks to residents and tourists. I’m not suggesting tourists should cancel planned trips. But tourists should try to stay in touch with any additional evidence that an eruption is nearing. I’m very impressed with the open information approach the Icelandic government is taking, and Iceland Magazine is to be commended for their honesty and thoroughness in dealing with these issues.

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