Volcanoes, the Internet, and the Public's Role in Science, How the 2010 Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was the First 21st Century Eruption

Erik Klemetti (Department of Geosciences, Denison University, Granville, Ohio, USA)

Ohio State University at Newark Geology Club presentation

16 November 2010


Will be talking about Eyjafjallajökull Volcano.  Seemingly unpronounceable, but “Eye-jah-fyah-la-yo-kul”, or “eye-jah” for short.  Some consider the “ll” to be pronounced as “tl” in Icelandic, however.

In the pre-internet age, information about geologic events was filtered through the media only before it got into the public’s hands.

Now, information dissemination routes are very complex - the media is almost excluded now.

The public is now closer to events - information can be determined more quickly and more directly.

But, there’s much more info. to sort through.

In 2008, Erik Klemetti started a new volcanoes web log (“blog”) called Eruptions.

Pre-2008 volcano web logs weren’t written by geologists.  Klemetti decided there was a place for a geologist-written volcano web log.  Eruptions gets ~150,000 hits a month.  During the Iceland volcanic eruption, Eruptions got ~700,000 hits a month.

Klemetti uses the web log to dispel idiotic ideas in the media, and uses it to get people talking about volcanoes.

www.galaxyzoo.org - an astronomy website that uses “crowdsourcing” to get science done.

Earlier this year (2010), an impact was observed on Jupiter - it was recorded by an amateur - no professional astronomers saw it.

Crowdsourcing can also be used to get information about volcanic activity.

Iceland - it’s a weird place.  It’s in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.  Locals eat rotting shark.  The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs right through Iceland.  Two tectonic plates are spreading apart through the island.  There’s also a mantle plume (hotspot) at Iceland.  This results in subsurface melting and magma generation - lots of volcanoes occur on Iceland.  Icelandic volcanoes include Hekla, Krafla, Katia, Laki, Grimsvötn, etc.

Laki’s 1783 eruption is one of the biggest in history.  More basaltic lava was erupted from Laki than has been erupted anywhere in quite some time.  Erupted volcanic gases from Laki resulted in noticeable climate change for a while.

Eyjafjallajökull is named for the icecap atop the volcano.  Glacial ice fills the caldera.  Under the glacial ice are vents from the old volcano.

1821-1823 was the last Eyjafjallajökull eruption - it was explosive (VEI 2).  There are tens to hundreds of VEI 2 explosive eruptions every year, globally.

1612 - Eyjafjallajökull had a VEI 2 explosive eruption.

920 A.D. - Eyjafjallajökull had a VEI 3 explosive eruption on its northwestern flank.

Eyjafjallajökull is not really regarded as very active, compared with other Icelandic volcanoes such as Hekla.  Eyjafjallajökull was not high up on the list of volcanoes that people thought would probably erupt.

So, it was surprising to many that Eyjafjallajökull erupted - it caught people off-guard.

March 4, 2010 - Eyjafjallajökull inflation was noted, plus seismicity at 10 km below the surface.

The Iceland Meteorological Office (IMO) said that the activity was not going to lead to an eruption.

Many, many volcanoes inflate and deflate and have earthquakes all the time with no eruption - this is why the IMO said that.

Amateur geophone observations - earthquakes were getting more shallow through time.

An amateur did predict an Eyjafjallajökull eruption - posted 5 March 2010 on the Eruptions web log.

20 March 2010 - 16 days after the IMO said nothing will happen, an Eyjafjallajökull eruption began.  People saw a glow from the glacier and noted ash falling near the glacier.  This was the start of a fissure eruption east of Eyjafjallajökull.  Amateurs reported on web logs well before the media got involved.

Earthquakes had happened under Eyjafjallajökull, but the eruption happened well to the east of the volcano, between it and the next volcano eastward.

So the earliest phase of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption was along the Fimmvördulháls Fissure.  Lava was erupting into snowpack - got some phreatomagmatic eruptions.  The lava flows received many close visitors - close examination was relatively safe.

31 March 2010 - a second fissure appeared 11 days after the first fissure appeared - it was perpendicular to the first.  The new fissure was visible on webcams - the new eruption could’ve been observed from the initial moment on live video.

12 April 2010 - the IMO said the eruption was winding down.

13 April 2010 - the Icelandic media reported that the Eyjafjallajökull was over.

Late 13 April 2010 - lots of new shallow earthquakes were noted under the volcano, not under the fissure.  Water discharge levels in a river draining from the volcano were observed to be quickly rising at night - that shouldn’t happen.

Late 13 April 2010 - a new eruption started under the icecap, it’s being realized by people.

So, in 24 hours, there was a complete turn-around in people’s perceptions about Eyjafjallajökull activity.

Eyjafjallajökull goes explosive.

This phase of the eruption occurred at the caldera center, at the main glacier/icecap.

An ash plume went 8 to 10 to 15 km high in the atmosphere.

Why explosive volcanism now?  Two factors behind this:

1) higher silica content to the magma/lava - now 47-58% SiO2 - more viscous, so gas pressures increase beyond the strength of the rock, resulting in explosive shattering of the rock - ash eruption.

2) more lava interaction with water - the lava erupted under the glacier, instead of under snow, resulting in the generation of much water, which mixes with lava, resulting in steam explosions that shatter rock - ash eruption.

Eyjafjallajökull changed from having a quiet eruption to an explosive eruption.

Eyjafjallajökull ash - Klemetti got boxes of it sent to Denison.  Early ash was dark-colored - less silicic.

Eyjafjallajökull ash was a mix of fragmented volcanic glass and volcanic minerals (feldspar, pyroxene, magnetite, oxides, etc.)

Jet engines and ash just don’t mix.

If ash gets into an airplane engine, the ash melts and surfaces get coated with glass - bad for the engine.

Even dilute ash (ash you can’t even see) can cause stalled jet engines.

Planes need to fly below volcanic ash clouds in order to restart engines.  This is opposite to the normal tendency of pilots to fly over clouds.

“The Ash that Ate Europe”

Klemetti thinks it was correct to shut down flights in Europe - why take the chances?  There have been no ash-airplane disasters yet, but. . .

Airlines claimed a $200 million dollar loss a day during the shutdown.

It’s remarkable that a small eruption shut down European flights for a week.

Europe and North Africa were affected for quite some time.  That was early in the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption history.

Summer 2010 - Eyjafjallajökull hasn’t done anything.

Now - Eyjafjallajökull is quiet.

Internet response to the eruption - Erik Klemetti’s web log has a hit peak when the fissure eruption started, followed by a huge hit peak during the airspace closure.

From 15 to 24 March 2010, the Eruptions web log had 1.22 million hits.

The media’s Katla-mongering: Katla has relatively frequent eruptions, so it’s a coincidence that Katla erupts close in time to the infrequent Eyjafjallajökull eruptions.  The media likes dramatic stories, so they will force connections that don’t exist.  Ex: Haiti and Chile earthquakes - the Earth is becoming unstable!  Ex: the Merapi eruption and the coincident large earthquake in Indonesia.

Volcanologists don’t make predictions - they provide probabilities.



Home page