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Threat Level Raised for Icelandic Volcano, Brings Back Memories of 2010 Eruption

19 Aug 2014, 1:37 pm

icelandic volcano webcam
Photo credit: Icelandic Met Office
(A webcam has been set up near the remote volcano to allow scientists to keep a better eye on it.)

Alert Level Raised

Remember Eyjafjallajokull? It’s the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010, bringing European air travel to a screeching halt for nearly a week — costing airlines more than $2 billion.

Well, it looks like another volcano on the island nation, which has been quiet for years, is starting to awaken. And a recent spate of seismic activity at the Bárðarbunga volcano has prompted the Icelandic Met Office to raise the threat level for that volcano. Currently, Bárðarbunga is sitting at level “Orange,” meaning the “volcano shows heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption,” according to the IMO. Orange is only one level below the highest level of alertness, Red. A Red Alert means an eruption is imminent or on-going.

Photo credit: Icelandic Met Office

In an update on their website, the Icelandic Met Office says the recent “earthquake swarm” started on August 16 and has continued through early this week. The largest earthquake recorded thus far — a 4.0-magnitude — occurred on August 18 and is the strongest in the region since 1996. The IMO also reports the magma movement shallower than 10 kilometers (6.1 miles) below the surface, further indication of an increase in potential volcanic eruptions. What the Icelandic Met Office had to say about the potential for flooding was concerning as well, “… it cannot be excluded that the current activity will result in an explosive sub-glacial eruption, leading to an outburst flood (jökulhlaup) and ash emission. The situation is monitored closely.”

Why Does Iceland Have so Many Volcanoes

Iceland is no stranger to volcanic and seismic activity, since the country sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — a divergent tectonic plate boundary that’s notorious for fast-onset fissure-like volcanic eruptions. Although many eruptions along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge aren’t explosive, some Icelandic volcanoes — like Eyjafjallajokull and Bárðarbunga — are “stratovolcanoes.” Straovolcanoes have a higher likelihood of explosive ash emissions.

Photo credit: Cogiati/Wikimedia

And an explosive eruption is exactly what happened in 2010 when Eyjafjallajokull sent ash clouds thousands of feet into the air. High-level winds then spread those ash clouds across the whole of Europe, blanketing the skies for days and causing flights to be cancelled, diverted or severely delayed.

What are the precautions in the aviation industry when it comes to volcanic eruptions? Well, jet aircraft engines can become non-operational if they encounter an ash cloud; even if they fly through a small amount of volcanic ash, the effect on the engine can be devastating.

When Jets and Volcanic Ash Meet

Photo credit: Silagi
(This is same British Airways plane that nearly crashed as a result of flying through a volcanic ash cloud in Indonesia. This image was take in 1980, at San Francisco International Airport.)

In the last 35 years, there have been at least two major instances where a volcanic ash cloud nearly brought down a jumbo jet.

In 1982 a British Airways 747 — heading from London to Auckland, with intermediate stops in India and Malaysia — was at cruising altitude, passing over the high-terrain of the Indonesian island of Java, when it encountered and ash plume form Mount Galunggung. The volcano, located about 110 miles southeast of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, erupted earlier in the day and winds blew the ash into the places flight path. What happened next is among the most heralded tales in aviation.

The first indication of was an acrid-smelling smoke that begin to fill the cabin and cockpit. Next high-intensity static electric discharges, called “St. Elmo’s Fire” began to envelop the nose, windscreen and wings of the aircraft. Next, the worst happened: All four engines on the massive airliner flamed-out and stopped working. And contrary to popular belief, airliners can glide for quite sometime. The British Airways 747 had a glide ratio of 15:1, meaning for every 1 kilometer the plane dropped, it could glide 15 kilometers.

bbc_jet engine
Photo credit: BBC
(This graphic shows how volcanic ash affects a jet engine.)

And after dropping 25,000 feet — to an altitude of 12,000 feet — the captain was able to restart the engines and limp the plane to Jakarta, saving the crew and all 247 passengers on board.

Seven years later, a KLM 747 also encountered a similar situation. This time while flying over Alaska. The plane — en route to Tokyo from Amsterdam, with a stopover in Anchorage — flew through an ash plume from Mount Redoubt, about 110 miles southwest of Anchorage, and lost all four engines. After declaring an emergency, the plane descended out of the ash plume and was able to restart the engines. It later made a safe landing in Anchorage, but not before racking up $80 million in damage to the six-month-old aircraft.

Since the KLM incident, no commercial airliners have reported such emergencies.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

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