Iceland – a clear and present danger
Climate change represents a clear and present danger to human civilisation (which we could have prevented). However, the volcanoes of Iceland actually represent a much greater – or at least a much more imminent – danger (which we cannot prevent). Here is how Jeremy Irons describes the threat in the opening sequence to the episode of the excellent Life on Fire television documentary series dedicated to looking at them:
Like many other islands, Iceland is a product of volcanic activity. However, Iceland is the most volcanically-active island on Earth; and many geologists consider it to be home to some of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet. Indeed, Iceland has at least 30 active volcanoes but concern is now focussed on about half a dozen of these, which are located beneath or in close proximity to ice. Of these, Grimsvotn, Hekla, and Katla appear to be the most dangerous.
Grimsvotn is the most active, erupting almost every year. Fortunately(?), it is buried beneath part of the largest permanent Ice Cap in Europe – Vatnajokull… Incidentally, we tend to describe these things as permanent but, I feel compelled to point out that bare rock of peaks in the Austrian Alps and the Rocky Mountains in the USA – previously considered “permanently” covered in snow or ice – are now being exposed as a result of global warming…
Anyway, to get back to Iceland, Grimsvotn is buried beneath several thousand feet of ice but it is remote; and the outpourings of glacial melt-water the eruptions cause do not seem to do too much damage. By contrast, Hekla is not so remote and is not buried beneath an ice cap (just a small glacier). However, although known to have a history of violent eruptions, Hekla is not thought to be ready to erupt (like all Icelandic volcanoes it is being routinely monitored for signs of activity). The really big concern is Katla, which is known have a history of violent eruptions and its underlying magma chamber is known to be full (rather than empty). Therefore, although it could erupt within weeks or not erupt for 10 years, it is considered – due to the regularity of its historic eruptions – to be ready to erupt and likely to do so in the near future (at least as one measures time in the context of the lifecycle of active volcanoes).
When Katla erupts it will make the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 (which it normally follows; and which caused so much disruption to aviation) seem insignificant by comparison: The scientists estimate that Katla (with a 10km-wide Caldera buried beneath 750 metres of ice) will be 50 times more powerful eruption than
Eyjaf… that of its close neighbour in 2010. In December 2011, the BBC News website picked up on the increasing levels of seismicity around the summit of Katla, reporting that New Icelandic volcano eruption could have global impact. One thing seems certain, an eruption at Katla will send much larger quantities of ash much higher into the atmosphere – such that they will stay there for years and disprupt weather patterns on a global scale.
The last time anything remotely similar happened – the Laki fissure eruption of a dozen or more separate volcanoes – in 1783, it is estimated that 300,000 people died in Europe from the short-term effects (i.e. much of Europe was blanketed in a noxious mixture of poisonous and acidic gases). Furthermore, it has been estimated that 1 million people died as a result of longer term effects (i.e. the failure of harvests and colder-than-normal winters in each of the three years following the eruption), which are thought to have been partly responsible for causing the French Revolution.
Given that the global population at the time was less than 1 billion, it does not take a mathematical genius to work out that, notwithstanding the fact that this will not be a surprise when it happens (thanks to all monitoring being done), the effects of an eruption of this magnitude today will be somewhat greater than interrupting a few people’s business or holiday plans. Basically, our modern industrial globalised civilisation has not witnessed anything like it and it will affect the whole of the northern hemisphere if not the entire planet. Here’s how the British, normally-unflappable, Daily Telegraph newspaper reported the news to its readers on the second anniversary of the 2010 eruption (earlier this year):
So all I can do now is echo the famous words of Edward R Murrow, and say, “Good night and good luck!”
Or maybe, if I can be permitted a little gallows humour:
Armageddon out of here!
(i.e. I think it really is time I made good use of my Dual Nationality and emigrated to Australia!)