Like Z-list celebrities, volcanoes are often more infamous than famous. Vesuvius, Krakatoa, Etna: all owe their household name status to the destructive force of their periodic eruptions. Last year, another, more difficult to pronounce name entered the pantheon of volcanic infamy – Eyjafjallajökull.
The Eyjafjallajökull glacier, in south-west Iceland, had been dormant for some 200 years when on, April 13 2010 it erupted for the second time in less than a month. The first explosion, in late March, measured just a 1 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) but was so powerful that it ripped a 1km-long fissure in the ice-sheet, spewing basalt lava, which streamed in rivers creating awesome lava falls.
But is it the second phase of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption that everyone will remember. Registering 4 on the VEI, it was one of the biggest ever recorded in Iceland – and one of the most disruptive. A plume of ash, estimated at some 300 million cubic metres, was sent around 11km into the earth’s atmosphere, bringing chaos to our skies as aviation authorities struggled to access the risk for air travel.
The closure of much of Europe’s airspace between April 15 and 20 was the largest disruption of air travel since the Second World War. ‘I hate Iceland,’ one grounded Scottish tourist memorably roared at a television crew vox-popping disgruntled would-be passengers in one British airport.
For Icelanders, however, volcanic activity is simply part of life in the land of fire and ice. While scientists from around the world continue to monitor the island’s myriad volcanic sites, famers living in the shadow of the spectacular Eyjafjallajökull glacier have, for centuries, used a rather more traditional method to detect ashfall. Each night a white plate is placed next to the main door to the farmhouse: if, next morning, the plate is black with dust and ash then has been an eruption somewhere in the vicinity.
‘This is a volcanic island, there is activity, it’s just a fact of life,’ Heather Millard, a documentary film-maker, originally from Cambridge now living Iceland, explained to me in a café in downtown Reykjavik recently.
Millard is currently working on ‘Ash: Aftermath Under the Volcano’, a film following the lives of three Icelandic families living in the ferocious shadow of Eyjafjallajökull. ‘People by the volcano are still really worried,’ she says. ‘One of the famers’ wives has recurring nightmares of lava coming towards here.’
Arguably the most surprising aspect of last year’s eruption was not the force and scale of the explosion and its aftermath, but that it happened at Eyjafjallajökull and not Mount Hekla.
Located in the south of Iceland, Hekla is overdue a major eruption. Nicknamed the ‘Gateway to Hell’ in the Middle Ages, the effects of an eruption at Hekla could be far more devastating than anything witness last year: many historians trace the roots of the 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe to a series of massive explosions here in 1845 and 1846 that led to crops across the continent being ruined.
Given increasingly levels of global uncertainty about resources and climate change, another massive eruption could have equally sweeping effects.
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