Thursday, November 17, 2011

Katla - The Icelandic Ticking Time Bomb

It was almost two years ago when the Icelandic volcano of Eyjafjallajökull erupted with a surprise display of fissure driven lava effusion, and an explosive eruption from the summit caldera. The volcano which had not erupted for over 120 years burst to life with a spectacular display, but also wreaked havoc on air travel for most of Europe and some parts of the Americas. Indeed this volcano eruption was probably one of the most costly in recent history not to life, but to the economies around the Northern Hemisphere.

As most people know by now, Eyjafjallajökull is dwarfed by its larger, and more violent, neighbor, Katla Volcano under the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Katla, when it does have a large eruption, is up to 10 times more powerful than Eyjafjallajökull at its peak strength. And as history says, when Eyjafjallajökull blows up, Katla will not be far behind. Typically, an eruption from Eyjafjallajökull is followed rather closely by one from Katla, however this time it has been more than a year until Katla finally started showing signs of dike intrusion and ice melt.

During July, 2011, Katla produced what is widely thought to be a minor subglacial eruption, which caused a series of "Jökulhlaups" or glacier outburst floods that ended up taking out a bridge down river and causing other minor damage to infrastructure. This was a minor burp compared to what Katla can truly do, and lately it seems that Katla may be again gearing up for a larger show.

Blogger Jon Frimann who runs the "Iceland Volcano and Earthquake blog" has been monitoring the situation under Katla with his geophones, and states that dike intrusion is probably occurring under Katla (other volcanologists such as John Seach have also suggested that this is occurring), which will eventually lead to an eruption.

It looks like Katla will erupt sooner, rather than later, but as is the case with most volcanoes, attempting to predict when an eruption will happen is a waste of time, as is proven time and again. Unless volcanoes give very clear and consistent signals, such as the ongoing activity at El Hierro volcano in the Spanish Canary Islands did, it's really anyone's guess as to how and when they'll blow their tops.

And it's certainly not as if scientists don't have enough active volcanoes in the world to study, there are hundreds if not thousands of active volcanoes on our planet. The challenge is that each volcano is different, erupts differently, are made of different stuff, and sit on different types of geological settings. Each volcano has to be carefully analyzed and its own unique behavior mapped, so there can never truly be a "one size fits all" standard for volcanic eruption prediction. Only being prepared, and staying observant.

Is Europe really ready for round two of the volcanic dust cloud? They were extremely cocky last time, when they got desperate to begin flying airplanes through the ash, there are many reports that the British paid scientists to downplay publicly the danger of volcanic dust on airplane jet engines. There should be no need for proof of the dangers of ash-laden air going through hot jets that the danger is very real. There have already been plenty of examples of near fatal encounters with ash clouds, and ones that were fatal. I don't care how bad you want to fly, its not worth the risk!

If Katla erupted lets say, next week, (which it probably won't), the damage to the Eurozone would likely be immense, as the region is struggling with its own bubble-burst and recession, which has threatened the European Union and its monetary system. Throw in the inability to fly planes throughout the region, and it's like throwing gas on the fire. Given Europe's less-than-scientific analysis of volcanic ash and airplane engines, I'd say that this increases greatly the chances of some airplane getting slammed by ash, and crashing. I truly hope that doesn't occur and that wiser people prevail and choose life over money, but money is a powerful motivator these days.

In any case, keep your eyes peeled on Katla. If it has a large eruption, it will probably end up being the eruption of the decade for the Northern Hemisphere and for Westernized Civilization. It's highly doubtful an eruption would result in any deaths, save from tourists who get a bit too close or freeze if they get lost, and would likely simply be an economic killer. It will be an historic event, nonetheless. Stay tuned!


  1. You don't know how Katla will erupt. And how the wind direction is at that time. The eruption of 1918 (which was not small) had no effect on europe to my knowledge.
    The last eruption (before 2010) of Eyjafjallajökul was 1821-23, so this is almost 200 years.

  2. Most scientists agree that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, Katla follows shortly after. Recently there has been many swarms of earthquakes that indicate rising magma, and there was a smaller eruption in 2011. Scientists such as John Seach have noted this, and the Icelandic Met Office has been on alert ever since the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.

    When hot lava/magma mixes with water and ice, the result is always explosive, as was seen with Eyjafjallajökull, and Grimsvotn.

    While I clearly state in the article that it is nearly impossible to successfully predict an eruption and its characteristics, there is a lot of consensus out there that Katla can and will produce a large eruption if it gets a large injection of magma into its chamber. Minor dike intrusion has been ongoing in Katla since the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. GPS data also indicates inflation.

    Europe was not adversely affected by Katla 200 years ago, because the world was not quite as developed. The devastation this volcano will cause to Europe has little to nothing to do with crops, livestock, etc., but more to do with the economic costs of transportation like airplanes, and the effect that Eyjafjallajökull caused last eruption is a good model to use. In this article I state my disbelief that corporate airlines would prefer to fly through volcanic dust and put lives at risk rather than letting a volcano affect their bottom line.

    You are correct in saying we don't know what the weather will be, or if the jet stream will carry an ash cloud over Europe. However it is a concern, and a proven possibility.

  3. As far as I know this connection between Eyjafjallajökull and Katla is not as accepted as it sometimes seems. First of all, this "connection" has only data from three eruptions since Iceland has been populated. A time in which Katla on its own erupted around 20 times. And then these "connected" eruptions happened quite close after each other, but now we have almost two years passing without anything big happening. So Katlas activity can also simply happen by chance.

  4. Katla can and does erupt independently of Eyjafjallajökull, this is quite true. Of course we can only cite historical records at this point, which you do point out there are only three from which we have good reference. However when Eyjafjallajökull has erupted, Katla does typically follow. Prior to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, and Katla's small burst in June of 2011, Katla had few harmonic tremors and was relatively quiet, all things said.

    The theory goes that Eyjafjallajökull (and Fimmvordhaus) has a sort of horizontal dike that can connect with the magma chamber at Katla and cause a larger eruption than is usually typical of Katla (the two most recent 'eruptions' in 2011, and 1999 were merely outburst floods from the glacier and non-explosive). As most Icelandic scientists will say, they believe this is the reason that when Eyjafjallajökull blows, Katla follows soon thereafter.

    Given that small eruptions, dike intrusion, and harmonic tremors are presently happening at Katla, it is reasonable to assume that the data is consistent with Katla gearing up for another either large or small eruption. While scientists have not been able to map the magma chambers of both volcanoes in respect to each other, the eruption of Fimmvordhaus between Eyjafjallajökull and Katla is a good indication of the dike mechanics that can link the two magma chambers.

    You are correct in that scientists cannot predict an eruption. Blog sites like this serve, in my opinion, as a cautionary arm of official volcanic observatories. If you paid attention to the case involving Italian scientists who were actually prosecuted for NOT predicting an earthquake, you can easily see why some are not inclined to attempt any sort of warning system or prediction until an eruption is already underway.

    I am by no means a scientist, but after monitoring volcanoes and earthquakes for the past 12 years on an amateur/freelance basis, I have had lots of success in my own predictions with Alaskan (Aleutian Island) volcanoes, as well as many on the Pacific Ring of Fire including the Kamchatka peninsula, Mt. St. Helens, and volcanoes in Chile.

    There is never any harm in providing cautionary amateur predictions augmented by scientific monitoring. The Icelandic Met Office, John Seach, The Global Volcanism Program, USGS, and other resources all point to Katla building for an eruption. When it happens is anyone's guess, but when all the alarm bells are ringing, I would err on the side of caution, and always prepare for a worst case scenario, especially with the explosive nature of most Icelandic volcanoes.

    Here are a few of the links that I used to gather information for this article.

    Thanks for reading!


Comments are moderated. See the comment policy for details.