In the last 48 hrs over 1.000 earthquakes have been registered in Bárðarbunga, a little known volcano in the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland. A warning has been issued in Iceland that the volcano might erupt and people are encourage not to go near the volcano.
How likely is the volcano to erupt?
It is very difficult to assess. While earthquakes in the volcano are common, the current seismic activity in the volcano is quite unusual, and unusually constant. Over 1.000 earthquakes have been registered in just two days very close to the volcano but still at a considerable deapth. Geologist say the pattern indicates a movement of magma underneath the volcano and increase considerable the chance of an eruption. In 2011 an earthquake in Bárðarbunga volcano measuring 5.0 on Richter set off a short but powerful eruption in a near by volcano, Grímsvötn volcano. Eruptions in the Bárðarbunga are very rare, happening only every 250-600 years, the last eruption being in 1766, 248 years ago.
How dangerous is the volcano?
Because of how infrequent eruptions are in Bárðarbunga volcano, the impact and nature of the eruptions are not well known. While a big eruption is very unlikely, it is a fact that Bárðarbunga is Iceland's largest volcano, stretching over 200 km in length, 25 km in width, and rising 2009 meters above sea level. The largest lava flow on Earth since the last ice age came from Bárðarbunga volcano 8.500 years ago so it has "great capabilities". Today this volcano is considered the most likely one for a large eruption in Iceland. The movements of the magma now are to the north-east of the volcano which is a good thing, as eruptions on that side of the volcano are usually considerably smaller than to the south-west.
The Grímsvötn eruption in 2011, image by Egill, Vísir.is
The eruption in Grímsvötn 2011 started with an earthquake in Bárðarbunga indicating a direction relation between the two. The Gjálp eruption in 1996 was in a 4-5 km long frissure between the two volcanoes. Grímsvötn volcano is Iceland's most active volcano, usually rather innocent, only resulting in some flooding when it erupts. It was however part of the Skaftáreldar eruption (Laki) in 1783-1786 which is the deadliest eruption in historic time, causing cooling of the northern hemisphere of the planet for a few years. Some go as far as to blame the volcano for a famine in China and the French revolution, as it caused failed crops in France. Climate changes causing failed crops and draught following that eruption are believed to have killed 6 million people world wide. Laki is NOT the same volcano as Bárðarbunga though it is close by.
Even though this MIGHT be the start of an eruption, there is nothing that indicates that it will be an exceptionally big or dangerous one. On the contrary, the movements are on the "safer" side of the volcano where eruptions tend to be smaller. If it even starts.
Is it dangerous to travel to Iceland?
Nope. Not at all. The volcano is in a very remote location, hundreds of kilometers from Reykjavik and most villages. It is covered with a thick layer of ice (700 meters) as it lies under Europe's largest glacier. The glacier can swallow a considerable amount of lava and ashes before opening up to the surface, giving people time to respond. The most likely scenario is big floods coming either down the sands south of Vatnajökull, or down Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the glacial river running to the north and feeding Dettifoss, Europe's largest waterfall.
Impact on aviation and flight schedules
This is not Eyjafjallajökull. And even though both the volcano and the glacier are much bigger than Eyjafjallajökull volcano, it is the composition of the ashes that is much more important to the spread and impact on aviation. In the last eruption in Grímsvötn volcano, which was much more powerful than the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, it had very limited impact on flights, only causing minor redirection of routes in direct proximity of the volcano. An eruption in Bárðarbunga is therefor unlikely to have any effect on flights on continental Europe.
So no worries. For now :)
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UPDATE: A live webcam has been located on the glacier facing the volcano. You can view it here: Grimsvotn webcam