Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Iceland – a clear and present danger

with 40 comments

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, 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):

Iceland volcano: and you thought the last eruption was bad…

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:

Knock, knock?

Who’s there?


Armageddon, who?

Armageddon out of here!

(i.e. I think it really is time I made good use of my Dual Nationality and emigrated to Australia!)

Written by Martin Lack

17 September 2012 at 00:02

40 Responses

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  1. And I’ve been planning to visit Iceland especially to see the volcanoes. Might put that trip on hold for a while ….

    Graham Coghill

    17 September 2012 at 01:09

    • No, no, Graham. If you are serious, go now; while you can. I have wanted to visit Iceland for nearly 30 years and would do so if I could. In my final year as an undergraduate student of geology, everyone had to do a mapping project. The research interests of your Tutor dictated where you went: Some students went to Norway, some Iceland, some the Alpes Maritimes in the south of France. Sadly, my Tutor’s research interests were more prosaic; so we went to the south of England!

      Martin Lack

      17 September 2012 at 08:41

      • I’m serious alright. My wife has even been looking for house exchanges. Perhaps I’ll just tell her to look for places that are not too close to Katla, eh?

        Graham Coghill

        17 September 2012 at 11:54

        • As I said in my post, Graham, Katla is considered “ready” to erupt; but there is no evidence it will do so immediately. The monitoring that is being done is thought likely to give a few weeks notice. If you were already on Iceland when it erupted, you would be very unlikely to be adversely affected unless you were camped on the mountain; or renting a farmhouse on surrounding land (within say 10km?). The main disadvantage(?) to being there when it erupts is that you will probably be stuck there; or have to go home via a circuitous route. Either way, check your travel insurance for “Act of God”-type exlusions…

          Although it is British (not Icelandic), the following site appears to be a good source of current information on Katla: – The latest earthquake was magnitude 3.1, on 21 August.

          Martin Lack

          17 September 2012 at 12:22

  2. Well, relative to the greenhouse gas poisoning, it’s nearly funny. But the Europeans would be wise to have emergency plans (they do not, besides good night and good luck). There were other disasters before Laki…

    Patrice Ayme

    17 September 2012 at 07:32

    • Thanks Patrice. It must have been very frightening for it just to happen and to not know why it was happening. If I was an evangelical atheist (such as Richard Dawkins) I would of course suggest that this is how/why people invented their gods – a bit like a cosmic conspiracy theory actually – to make the World seem more rational. The funny thing is that it is in fact very rational indeed (i.e. apart from the fight for survival in which most animals and plants are perpetually engaged)…

      Martin Lack

      17 September 2012 at 08:47

      • Oligarchies invent gods, so that they can eat people, or become fat, like Nasrallah…

        Patrice Ayme

        17 September 2012 at 23:05

        • I think it would be better if oligarchies invented goods – such as electric cars… Unlike the UK, China is forging ahead with subsidising their production but, even so, less than 1 in 1000 cars on China’s roads (increasing by a million a month) is electric. Even if it were safe to burn it, there is not enough oil on the planet to facilitate China reaching Western levels of conventional car ownership.

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 09:10

        • It’s complex. China has been playing the subsidy game unfairly. China is also the world’s number one polluter. It needs to be cracked down against, before it goes to war in the China sea…

          Patrice Ayme

          18 September 2012 at 17:32

        • China is #1 polluter; and #1 investor in renewable technology. China is also still growing its economy at a totally unsustainable rate; which needs to stop. However, if it stops, the Ponzi Scheme of global Capitalism may well collapse. Discuss (as they say in examinations).

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 18:45

        • Coming in my essay after the one on the Duchess of Hypocrisy

          Patrice Ayme

          18 September 2012 at 19:20

        • To make electric car more, we need to tax more fossil fuels… Starting with a worldwide carbon tax. Although the USA and europe should move unilaterally…

          Patrice Ayme

          18 September 2012 at 17:35

      • If I was an evangelical atheist (such as Richard Dawkins)…

        Careful Martin, is this a deliberate read flag or honey pot just to bait me?

        Trouble with that statement is that atheism is not a religion any more than an understanding of global warming. The promotion of the theories of physics and biology as circumscribed by evolution and cosmology is well founded on scientific observation and the data produced thereof. To be sure we don’t know all the answers and probably never will know the ultimate answer because there will always be another question. You would realise that Dawkins supports this viewpoint if you had bothered to read him rather than take him via his numerous and very vocal critics. Evangelists on the other hand have to sooner or later rely on hand-waving – ‘because it says so in this book’.

        Lionel A

        18 September 2012 at 15:36

        • No it was not a red flag or honey pot set out for you (but I can see why you might think that). Personally-speaking, I would say that atheistic humanism is a belief system (and therefore a form of religion). Even nihilism and anarchism are forms of groupthink.

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 17:05

        • No. Religious belief is not grounded in facts. As a scientist you should be able to tell the difference but it is clear that some cannot.

          You may have heard of Potholer54 who put together this apposite Crockoduck clip on how Dawkins gets misrepresented.

          Lionel A

          18 September 2012 at 17:16

        • Lionel, I am glad to see Patrice has intervened here (below); as it was his views I was attempting to echo. However, my choice of language was sloppy; Patrice’s statement that ‘secularism is a religion’ is far more accurate.

          You say that religious belief is not grounded in facts. That would be a fair observation if science was; but it is not. All knowledge in science is contingent; and awaiting falsification. Science is the pursuit of knowledge; but so is religion (just not using scientific methods)… 1 + 1 = 2 is about the only fact I know of. In addition, although I must stress I do not want to be seen as a Christian apologist, many people of different faiths (and of none) would accept the empty tomb of Christ as an historical fact. If so, all I am opposed to is those who say the Christian explanation cannot be true because God does not exist. That is a classic non sequitur and an unfalsifiable argument.

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 17:54

        • Secularism is a religion. (Read my latest essay for the idea in the first few sentences)

          Patrice Ayme

          18 September 2012 at 17:37

  3. Global cooling through volcanic dust loading of the atmosphere whilst contributing to cool periods in history seems to be rather [pardon the pun] over blown. On balance of evidence I would side with the ‘cosmic winter’ theory [Clube Napier] who argue for comet dust loading [as I shamelessly promote my book on the subject ‘Serpent in the Labyrinth’ Amazon!] as the most likely cause of years of cooling. Volcanoes will help reduce the global temps by a few tenths of a degree but only for a limited period.

    Eyjafjallajokull —[the glacier on top of the un-named volcano] reduced the amount of CO2 overall because it released so much less than the planes it grounded.

    I would suggest
    Don’t Panic!


    17 September 2012 at 13:27

    • Thanks Jules. There is no point getting anxious over something about which you can do nothing. Furthermore, there may well be other factors out there cooling the globe much more effectively than volcanoes (more on this later in the week). However, it remains a very high probability that a major eruption of the Katla volcano will have consequences similar to those of the Laki eruption in 1783. If so, this will be worse than either those arising from the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 or Mt Pinatubo in 1991: In other words, it will be unprecedented in post-Industrial times.

      Martin Lack

      17 September 2012 at 13:43

      • Indeed Martin, just think Tambora, and there are others much larger and longer ago recognised as McGuire describes in his book.

        Having steamed past Stromboli and Etna, the latter whilst in spectacular action and then walked up the slopes, the chair lift was inoperative due to cross winds – but I was fit in those days, of Vesuvius one Sunday and looked down into the smouldering caldera I hold volcanoes in awe. Especially having walked around Pompeii and taken photographs the colour slides of which I still have, Vesuivis and Stromboli too. Herculaneum was not opened up at that date.

        Unfortunately no pictures of Etna in action as we were at practice action stations ourselves exercising working under a gas attack. Working in gas masks not easy and that practice gas – a form of tear gas – was quite unpleasant and lingered on your hair and clothes until changed and showered.

        Lionel A

        18 September 2012 at 17:12

        • I am well aware that there have been much greater eruptions in the history of human civilisation and in pre-history. The point is that Katla will probably be the biggest in the modern era of globalised – and largely mutually dependent – civilisation.

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 17:59

    • However it has been considered that seismic activity can trigger submarine mud slides which could lead to the disassociation of methane clathrates. This is just one of the many aspect described by Bill McGuire in his book ‘Waking the Giant’. Here is a short video clip in which Bill explains the scenario (worth a watch especially by those who nay-say how serious things are going to get):

      You can have a dip into the book here and obtain more information on it here.

      Lionel A

      17 September 2012 at 18:09

      • Bill’s introductory video (which I have now embedded in your comment) is slightly confusing: He appears to dismiss any suggestion that specific recent events were triggered by climate change; but says there is evidence that significant warming can – and will – trigger increased tectonic activity. We therefore appear to have yet another positive feedback loop: Warming causes more earthquakes, which may cause methane hydrates to be released, which will accelerate the warming.

        Martin Lack

        17 September 2012 at 19:36

        • Martin,

          Specific events such as Bill mentioned are not due to climate change but recognised tectonic processes. However isostatic rebound, from ice cover loss, and also depression from increased sea levels cause pressures on the crust at some distance away from where the pressure is being increased or released, think of it like the wave moving away from a drop of water dripped into a glass of water. The central regions of the US & Canada are experiencing seismic activity long after the ice front has moved north.

          There really is no confusion. Dip into the book for more expansive explanations. Not all mammals are cats etc.

          Lionel A

          17 September 2012 at 20:00

        • Ahh yes. OK, thanks Lionel. Now I see the distinction being made.

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 09:14

  4. Thanks Martin,

    I’ll keep an eye on it.

    Graham Coghill

    17 September 2012 at 13:29

  5. Hmm… Norway and the UK are both pretty close to Iceland. Let’s hope there is a strong easterly when she blows…

    But on a more serious note; the poor global economy definitely does not need an unprecedented volcanic eruption right now. Let’s hope it is not as imminent or destructive as theorized.


    17 September 2012 at 15:54

    • Easterlies are unusual in the North Atlantic; and there is no theorising involved here; this is definitely going to happen in our lifetime.

      Martin Lack

      17 September 2012 at 17:01

      • Years ago sailing vessels took advantage of ‘the trades’ all across the globe. Well it was the only way to get around the oceans. It may seem strange to the uninitiated that vessels out of English ports would often touch on the East Coast of Brazil before setting off for the Cape of Good Hope on their way to The Indies. But trade winds and to a lesser extent ocean currents had to be learned so as to make a good journey before all starved or died of thirst.

        There is some thought, and indeed some examples, of more recent vessels resorting to sails, but not as they knew them in the ‘old days’ for trading voyages. However if the trade winds are disrupted then there could be trouble here. Some wind farms may find themselves short of ‘puff’ too. This is not to say that I am undermining wind-farms, far from it and quite the contrary but I think it is something to watch.

        Lionel A

        17 September 2012 at 20:08

        • I seem to recall (from going round the Slavery Museum on Liverpool Docks) that prevailing wind directions facilitated the cyclical transportation of slaves to Jamaica; sugar back to the UK; and manufactured goods to Ghana?

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 09:19

        • Sailing vessels of old could rarely sail closer to the wind than six points and six points is that of a crack Royal Navy frigate. Most lumbering merchantmen could barely manage seven points off the wind, i.e. almost on the beam. As a measure consider that North to North-North-West is two points and by extension North to North-West four points. With this in mind and the direction of the prevailing winds in different zones then the routes taken are explained. Also consider that it was preferred to use ‘great circle’ lines of navigation as being the shortest between two points on a double curved surface.

          As you probably know the atmospheric circulation has both a latitudinal and longitudinal component with the direction depending on being within a Ferrel Cell or a Hadley Cell with these arranged, more or less symmetrically about the Equator.

          It would have been the Westward blowing Northeast and Southeast trades that enabled the slave trade but with the dangerous band know as the doldrums (roughly across the equator) between them. It was in the doldrums that many a slaver became becalmed and the slaves dumped overboard still manacled.

          Sailing from England would have been by the use of the prevailing Westerlies, the runway layout of British airfield reflects these predominate prevailing winds e.g. the main runway at Yeovilton is 270/90. The Westerlies were fine once clear of the ‘chops of the channel’ but that would have been after a tedious series of beats with much tacking involved. Warships sailing from the Thames often waited in ‘The Downs’, an anchorage between the Kent coast and the Goodwin Sands’ for a favourable wind with an easterly component for the channel section of the voyage.

          Often the Azores or Madera, especially the latter with its superb anchorage at Funchal, were a favourite port of call before chancing the variables between the Westerlies and the Northeast trades. Sea Captains learned the best time of year for this section but of course this was subject to change, year on year, without notice.

          Sea Captains had much to learn during their time ‘before the mast’ or as Midshipmen and the vagaries of the trades with the time of year, as the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) shifts with the seasons. Currents too had to be learned, such as the strong outflow from the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibralter, as well as changes with the monsoons.

          Lionel A

          18 September 2012 at 12:13

        • Thanks for giving all the benefit of your extensive nautical experience (I for one have often wondered how many point there are on a compass – now I know it’s 32).

          Martin Lack

          18 September 2012 at 13:34

  6. One might reasonably react with the feeling, “Oh no, not another tale of the end of the world’! But, who knows, it may be the ‘tipping point’ in what I still see as widespread complacency, especially amongst our so-called leaders. A ‘tipping point’ that, finally and irrevocably, reveals that caring for, nay repairing, our planetary biosphere must be as instinctive, as well understood, as night following each day.

    Paul Handover

    17 September 2012 at 17:57

    • Thanks for that thought, Paul. What concerns me (apart from simply doing the maths and concluding that the number of deaths could well be in the millions) is the potential for its impacts to be global and prolonged. Like you say, it would be good if it focused the minds of our so-called leaders on problems we could actually fix…

      Martin Lack

      17 September 2012 at 18:04

  7. […] never be ready. It is a global threat with consequences at least an order of magnitude greater than a major volcanic eruption on Iceland and, worse still, we have no early warning system for a flu […]

  8. […] However, to my mind, the whole thing just serves to underline the seriousness with which we should view a potential eruption of the Katla volcano on Iceland. […]

  9. […] over seven months ago, I posted an item about the near-term probability of a catastrophic eruption of the Katla volcano on Iceland. Today, sadly, I think I have discovered that this might not be the worst natural […]

  10. Wow, what a terrible article. There are many different ways Katla could erupt, and a Laki scenario is unlikely as Katla is probably going to erupt how it did before in 1918. You don’t seem to have read the articles you linked to. There may be some aviation impact, but not as much as Eyjafjallajokul as that was a disaster caused by poor planning and overly cautious rules.


    23 October 2015 at 00:47

    • I hope leaving this comment made you feel better. Although I admit that your criticisms are probably valid, sadly, your unfriendly tone is all too common in cyberspace. It is one of the reasons that I have lost interest in blogging; the main one being that I am tired of being a ‘climate cassandra’.

      Martin Lack

      24 October 2015 at 18:18

      • I probably would have been nicer if your scaremongering and misinformation wasn’t so irresponsible. Also maybe you were actually worried about this, in which case I hoped my comment would put things in perspective for you or anyone else reading this.


        25 October 2015 at 12:16

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