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Anatomy of a volcano III

Hey everyone, this just in from Mike Richards, our resident volcanologist:

Hi folks,

The latest on the eruption is that it seems to be settling down to a more ‘Icelandic’ style of eruption. The huge ash falls of the last few days are dwindling and most of the stuff coming out of the crater is falling locally. Which means Alda might once again be able to fly to Europe.

In the last couple of days the magma reaching the surface has become more fluid, allowing the gas inside to escape quietly without exploding the rock into ash. At the same time, it looks like less water is reaching the vents, which is reducing the number of steam explosions that were also throwing ash into the atmosphere.

The volcano is now changing between two quite well known types of eruption. The first is called a ‘Surtseyan’ eruption – named after the island of Surtsey which appeared not too far from Eyjafjallajökull in the Westman Islands between 1963 and 1965. Surtsey began life as an undersea eruption marked by violent explosions as seawater crashed into the open vent.

These eruptions continued right up until Surtsey’s vent cleared the sea and began building a mountain. During this time, Surtsey was quite capable of throwing ash several kilometres in the air – but of course in those days there was much less air traffic to worry about.

Eyjafjallajökull’s ice is still melting and water is pooling around the vents. Every now and again it comes into contact with the magma and there is a filthy explosion of ash and ice. You can see one of them in this video.*

(If you’re in Reykjavik there is a superb exhibit about Surtsey at the museum – erm can’t remember the name (Alda???) it’s next to the opera house)

The other type of eruption which appears to be happening at Eyjafjallajökull is called ‘Strombolian’ and is named after, Stromboli an active volcano West of Italy which has been more or less continuously active for the last – wait for it – 20,000 years. Strombolian volcanoes throw out glowing cinders and lava bombs at short intervals of minutes to hours to altitudes of tens or even hundreds of metres. They are the result of very fluid magma and are rarely dangerous. In fact, if you ever go to Stromboli (there’s a ferry from Naples), you can climb the mountain and sit on the edge of the crater and watch the eruption.

There’s a webcam at Stromboli here.

If you’re lucky you can see explosions towards dusk.

All of this means that Eyjafjallajökull is in a new phase of its eruption – but that does not mean that the eruption is over or that it will not return to explosive activity. It’s possible there is more sticky andesite deep under the mountain which can’t currently find its way to the surface, or that a new fissure might open under the ice cap.

One question for Alda or any other Icelanders out there. What’s going on on the Westman Islands? From the look of it they’ve been under the plume for the last few days. I understand they also get their drinking water from the mainland.

Thank you Mike!

To address Mike’s question, I haven’t heard lately what’s happening on the Westman Islands, but in a report shown a few days ago it seemed it was just business as usual and they hadn’t been unduly affected by the ash. After all, the plume was blowing to the east, not so much to the south, which is where the islands are.

And as for the Surtsey exhibition … there was one at the Culture House a couple of years back, but I don’t know of one at the present time.

* The link marked with the asterisk also has a diagram [if you scroll down a little] that shows the subterranean channels of the volcano. It shows both the ducts to the Fimmvörðuháls eruption [the nice little tourist eruption we had first] and to the one that’s erupting now [the duct that sticks straight up]. It also shows the close proximity to [gulp!] Katla.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Clapham April 20, 2010, 4:54 pm

    The eruption is appearing in cartoons in Canadian newspapers, with actual Icelandic captions:


    (This link is likely to point to a different cartoon within 24 hours but I assume there will be an April 21 link to point to it instead.)

  • alda April 20, 2010, 5:11 pm

    Haha, good one. Only … their Icelandic isn’t very good. Looks like they used google translate. 😉

  • Max April 20, 2010, 5:12 pm

    Æjæjæ! So the travel disruption is set to continue. If this lasts long enough, the UK might meet its CO2 targets!

  • Lissa April 20, 2010, 5:22 pm

    Culture House has the Surtsey exhibit. See your sagas and your volcanoes in one stop!

  • Jessica April 20, 2010, 6:32 pm

    Thank you Lissa for the update! In my humble opinion, the Surtsey exhibit at the Culture House is one of the best exhibits I’ve ever seen in Iceland. (Of course, I haven’t been the Icelandic Phallological Museum yet so maybe it’s too soon to say…) And it makes me wonder how much business has picked up at the Red Rock Cinema (Volcano Show) in Reykjavik. Someone tells me that Stykkisholmur has a volcano museum as well.

  • Lloyd April 20, 2010, 7:20 pm

    Reykjavík’s Red Rock Cinema has a show about Surtsey and the documentarian himself is there to introduce it. I saw it last year; fascinating.


  • Joerg April 20, 2010, 7:57 pm

    I love this volcano stuff. It’s really fascinating. I’m not so convinced that it is the best time to board an airplane.

    In Germany airspace is still closed but they have decided to allow flights under visual flight rules, where the pilots are in charge instead of air traffic control. It’s heavily opposed by the pilots’ union and appears like a typical compromise to delegate responsibility – quite surreal. Of course, people want to get home but somehow, commercial aviation is currently like depositing in Icelandic banks before the crash – airlines and air traffic control are telling that everything is safe but a certain uneasiness remains.

  • Lissa April 20, 2010, 8:16 pm

    I have been to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. I wasn’t going to go, but the charming young man at the Husavik Folk Museum insisted I go when he found out how much I love museums. He even called and arranged to have it opened (it was winter If you go to Husavik, I highly recommend the Folk Museum, it was very well done and I spent hours there.).

    Basically, the Phallological Museum has everything your high school biology textbook left out. I enjoyed it, even though I didn’t think I would (what on earth was a nice lesbian like me doing in a place like that, after all?). If you are in Husavik, it is worth a visit. If you are in Akureyri (and who wouldn’t want to be in Akureyri?), there is a bus (van, really) you can take to Husavik. You’ll have time for leisurely visits to all three museums in town, some leisurely wandering around and a swim.

  • MC April 20, 2010, 8:30 pm


    Danish daily Jyllands-Posten (The Jutland Post) reports from the Westman Islands today. A 22 year old bloke isn’t worried about water as he expects help from “our neighbours in Iceland” if supply is disrupted. Meanwhile his mother and grandmother (who have longer memories) have filled up their 40 pots for an ashy day. The Google translation (as good as they get) is here:


  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson April 20, 2010, 8:32 pm

    I think the show Mike is referring to is the Volcano show of Vilhjálmur Knudsen.
    The Surtsey eruption started on 14th Nov 1963 and lasted until 5th June 1967, lets hope that this one does not last quite that long.

  • Guðlaug P. April 20, 2010, 8:56 pm

    To Jessica here is link to Haraldur Sigurdsson blog he is geologist. Do not know if anyone has mentioned this here. http://vulkan.blog.is/blog/vulkan/
    He writes in Icelandic do not know how it comes out if you use Google translate
    Haraldur runs the museum in Stykkisholmur.
    Til Öldu frábært það sem þú ert að gera.

  • Mike Richards April 20, 2010, 8:58 pm

    Wow! Iceland’s made ‘The Daily Show’ – and yep – it’s the language again. Jon Stewart has made the excellent suggestion that the easiest way of minimising the global pain and suffering caused by this eruption might be to rename the mountain…

    …to Kevin.

  • JohnC April 20, 2010, 10:35 pm

    Given that Kevin is a phonetc, sort of, Anglicisation of Caoimhín maybe the same approach could be taken to renaming “the volcano” Any suggestions for an anglicisation?

  • Joerg April 20, 2010, 10:51 pm

    The Google Icenglish version of Haraldur Sigurðsson’s volcano blog is actually quite comprehensible. Other sites like RUV are often talking in riddles through Google translate.

    Translating back and forth using Google translate shows quite funny results. For instance the sentence “I live in Reykjavík” Google-translated to Icelandic is “Ég bý í Reykjavík”. Back to English gives “I live in Jakarta” – no idea, why.

  • Mike Richards April 20, 2010, 11:13 pm

    Thanks for the update on the Westman Islands – I went there last year and it’s an amazing place. I’m not sure if they can still bake bread in it, but Eldfell volcano is still warm!

    It was the exhibit at the Culture House I was thinking of, the volcano show is being saved for my next trip.

  • Mike Richards April 20, 2010, 11:26 pm

    For anyone who’s not bored of volcano videos yet, here’s an awesome one:


    If you watch carefully, you can actually see the shockwaves from explosions rippling out through the clouds of steam and ash. Normally you’d have to pay very large amounts of money to a special effects studio to get this sort of image.

    You can also see huge chunks of glowing rock being thrown up from the crater.

    And just to put this one in perspective. 3000 people are about to be evacuated from the area around Mount Gaua in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. An eruption which began last year is becoming more serious and the ash is polluting food and water supplies.