CODE ORANGE: The Risk Of An 'Explosive Subglacial Eruption' In Iceland Just Went Up (VGK, ESR)

Myles Udland

There's a chance a huge volcano in Iceland could blow.

Lorcan Roche Kelly at Agenda Research tipped us off to the news that the Icelandic government on Monday changed the status of Bardarbunga, a volcano in Iceland located under Europe's largest glacier, to "orange," meaning there is a heightened risk of eruption and ash cloud.

A report from Reuters on Monday noted that this is the second-highest risk level on the government's five-level risk scale.

"Presently there are no signs of eruption, but it cannot be excluded that the current activity will result in an explosive subglacial eruption, leading to an outburst flood and ash emission," said Iceland's Met Office.

Kelly noted, however, that Bardarbunga sits under 700m of ice, or nearly half a mile's worth, and to break through this an eruption would have to be quite massive.

Reuters noted that the 2010 eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano affected more than 10 million air travelers in Europe and cost $1.7 billion.

Kelly runs through a few scenarios if Bardarbunga erupts. Though, of course, we are still very much in the "if" stage.

Here is Kelly's basic outline:

  • First, to restate, there is a chance there will be no eruption.
  • It could be too small to matter. There was an eruption in the area in 1996 that did not break through the ice. While this eruption did lead to a destructive jo¨kulhlaup a rapid flood of melted water from the glacier damage was restricted to areas the flood hit. There was no ash cloud.
  • It could break though the ice, cause a small ash cloud, but lead to minimal disruption to air traffic. The 2011 eruption of Grimsvotn, also under Vatnajokull, had these characteristics. That eruption only lead to the cancellation of 900 flights and some re-routing on north Atlantic routes.
  • It could be a repeat of Eyjafjallajokull. If the volcano erupts, breaks through the ice-cap and produces large volumes of ash, we will likely see major air travel disruption during what is still peak holiday season.
  • There is a very small chance that an eruption could be something very much larger, along the scale of the 1783 Laki eruption. In the case of an eruption this size, the major problem would not be flight disruption caused by ash, although that certainly would happen but rather the devastating impact on climate and farming across the northern hemisphere. To give an idea of the scale, some research points to the Laki eruption being a trigger for the French Revolution.

This graphic from the Icelandic Meteroloigcal Office shows the increased risk of a volcano eruption, denoted by the orange triangle over Bardarbunga.

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