Monday, May 14, 2012

Katla Reported To Be Melting Ice

A report from the Iceland Volcano and Earthquake Blog by Jon Frimann seems to suggest that Katla volcano in Iceland has been experiencing some ice melt and creating some jökulhlaups (glacier outburst floods). Jon suggests that a geologist who is close to the monitoring efforts on the volcano is recording harmonic tremor since April 28th, which suggests magma is on the move, and possibly making contact with the base of the glacier.

The months of April and May have so far been pretty quiet for the volcano when it comes to seismicity. While there have been many small earthquakes, they are few and far between. Tremor is not necessarily registered as an earthquake by seismometers, but is picked up by waveform monitors designed to listen to this type of tremor. Harmonic tremor typically denotes the movement of magma within a system, and is typically seen as a precursor to a potential eruption...

But then again, oftentimes (a recent figure from the USGS states something more like 90% of the time) harmonic tremor and magma intrusion doesn't lead to an eruption. Personally I would not go ringing the alarm bells yet on Katla volcano. If it was actually gearing up for an eruption, it is highly likely you would see many more rock fracturing earthquakes, followed by land swell indicated by GPS measurements. This would most likely take at least 1-2 weeks given the history of many Icelandic volcanoes, and would give us plenty of warning ahead of time.

Indeed, there has not been a recent eruption in Iceland that did not give off some fairly obvious warnings before the main event. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was preceded by GPS measurements that indicated the mountain was swelling outwardly, then harmonic tremor/volcanic quakes, ultimately resulting in the fissure eruption at Fimmvörduhals, and finally the main caldera eruption at the summit. Katla, despite its ongoing geothermal action, has not yet displayed the sequence of events that suggest an eruption is imminent.

Katla volcano will erupt in the future. Maybe even the very near future. But right now, I wouldn't hedge any bets on this being really soon. As the summer months warm Iceland, ice will most certainly melt, and it will be easier for geothermal heat to assist in this process. There will undoubtedly be adjustments to the earth's crust when the level of ice falls, and seismicity will probably pick up a little bit. For now, I (and I'm sure Jon Frimann) will be watching Katla a bit more closely. 

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