Is Iceland's Katla Volcano Really About To Erupt?

Katla, one of many volcanoes in Iceland covered by an ice cap, is not showing any signs of imminent eruption. Frank Fichtmueller/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 24 Sep 2018, 13:02

You might have heard that Katla, an Icelandic volcano, is about to erupt and shut down European airspace in a way that would make the Eyjafjallajökull event in 2010 seem like nothing more than a bonfire. The funny thing is that none of this is true.

These claims are based on a fascinating new study that expressly does not make any predictive claims about the volcano. The paper's lead author, Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya of the University of Leeds, took to Twitter to lament how the research has been portrayed by the press as something it’s not.

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Katla is certainly something volcanologists are keeping their eyes on. Comprised of a system of fissures not unlike those seen on Kilauea recently, it features a central volcano. A large ice cap, Mýrdalsjökull, fills the crater.

In the last 1,100 years, Katla has erupted 20 times, often accompanied by flash floods as the ice cap rapidly melts. These events, called jökulhlaups, are cause for concern because they can happen very quickly and wash into valleys that may be full of people.

Jökulhlaups, which aren’t unique to Katla, occur from time to time. A major eruption at Katla in the mid-18th century, however, stands out: it led to a jökulhlaup with a flow that, per Wired, exceeded that of the Nile, Mississippi, Amazon, and Yangtze combined.

Katla’s eruptions can also generate towering ash columns, which can affect air travel. The last time this happened was in 1918, when an eruption was powerful enough to break through Mýrdalsjökull and create an ash column 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) high.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a heavily monitored volcano. Predicting when it might erupt isn’t yet possible, and any claims otherwise are false.

Katla’s eruptions don’t follow any clear pattern, and like all volcanoes, it's geologically unique, so generalizations can’t be made. All anyone can do is discuss the hazards, and look out for signs of magma rising to the surface.

The new paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, doesn’t talk about prediction. The media often wants to turn major volcano discoveries into stories of imminent eruption, but usually, that’s not the case.

This study – which even has a plain language summary to ensure people don’t get the wrong idea – found that Katla emits plenty more CO2 into the atmosphere than previously thought. In fact, the team found that Katla alone is responsible for 5 percent of the world’s volcanic CO2 emissions.

That’s incredible in itself, and suggests there are processes going on beneath the surface that we’ve yet to fully comprehend. Which magmatic source, precisely, is releasing this gas?

This work also highlights that natural sources of CO2, particularly subglacial volcanoes, need more precise measurements to improve the accuracy of climate models. Is Katla an exception to the rule of subglacial volcanoes, or do they all pump out way more CO2 than expected?

In case you were wondering: no, this doesn’t mean climate models are wrong, and yes, volcanic CO emissions still pale into insignificance compared to the amount and rate of CO2 humanity is producing.

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This is a fantastic paper, but one that has been misrepresented in the press. Along with Ilyinskaya, the Icelandic Institute of Earth Sciences – not involved with the study – emphasizes that the paper’s measurements “do not predict the size and magnitude of the next eruption,” nor when it'll occur. They may help improve eruption forecasts, but predictions are not made.

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There are no signs that Katla is about to erupt. Remember the golden rule: if it’s being reported that an eruption is imminent, or a major quake is about to occur, it almost certainly isn’t true. Trust in scientists, not sensationalism.

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