Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption reminded Europe that what happens in Iceland often affects much of the continent. Its spectacular ash plume, driven by searing magma coming into contact with the chilly jökull (glacier) above it, caused the largest shutdown of airspace in Europe since the Second World War, so naturally people are wondering when something like that will happen again.
A brand new study in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, led by the University of Leeds, has attempted to estimate the recurrence frequency of such an event.
“Although it is possible that ash clouds can occur on an annual basis, the average return interval for the last 1,000 years is around 44 years,” co-author Dr Graeme Swindles, an associate professor of Earth System Dynamics at the University of Leeds, said in a statement.
This value refers to Northern Europe; Europe as a whole will be covered in an ash cloud once every 56 years. The team also say that each decade brings with it a one-in-five chance of a significant volcanic plume emerging from the island of ice and fire.
“Our research shows that, over thousands of years, these sorts of incidents are not that rare – but people wondering how likely it is that the 2010 chaos will be repeated in the next few years can feel somewhat reassured,” Swindles added.
The 2010 event in all its glory. Fredrik Holm via YouTube
During the spectacular events of spring 2010, airplanes were grounded all across Europe. The airlines were right to act in this way, as subsequent studies confirmed that the remelting of volcanic ash within turbines and engines would almost certainly cause such aircraft to fall from the sky.
Soon after the eruption subsided, members of the research team for this new study began digging around in volcanic sediment across Northern Europe. Core samples up to 7 meters (23 feet) long were taken, representing the last several thousand years of volcanic ash fallout in the region.
Finding extremely small pieces of volcanic debris, dubbed “cryptotephra,” the team could match the chemical signature of samples to specific volcanoes. This way, a rough estimate of the frequency of such continent-affecting Icelandic volcanic eruptions could be determined.