Not again! Icelandic volcano threatens air routes

One year ago, a volcanic eruption caused chaos as ash clouds shut down European air travel. Now, an even larger explosion at the Grimsvötn volcano threatens to do the same.

Deep under the ice of Iceland's Vatnajökull glacier, pressure began to build. Flows of liquid rock pushed against the earth's solid crust, churning hot and dangerous in the subterranean dark. Finally, the ground shook, shivered and cracked. Jets of red-hot gas and rock burst through the icecap, launching plumes of steam and ash miles into the darkening sky.

This thick dust will hang in the atmosphere for days. In parts of Iceland, it has blocked out the sun, and turned the rain black.

It has also put an immediate stop to air travel around the island. Jet engines are vulnerable to dust and, as the cloud spreads, a growing area of crucial transatlantic airspace is ruled off-limits to civilian aircraft.

In Europe, the cry is 'not again!' Last year, a different Icelandic volcano shut down air travel for days at the peak Easter holiday season. Millions were left stranded.

This new dust cloud could reach Spain and France by Thursday, and although meteorologists hope that this latest eruption won't cause the same chaos, the prospect is worrying for Europe's fragile economies. Last year's eruption cost billions of pounds in lost business.

So why does Iceland keep producing these devastating volcanoes? The answer lies deep under the earth's surface, where huge continental plates are drifting slowly apart, carried by circulating currents of magma.

Iceland sits right across the gap where the plates are separating – where Earth's crust tears itself apart allowing liquid rock to flow up to the surface.

That leads to some spectacular volcanic events. In 1963, for instance, an eruption created a whole new island off Iceland's coast, as molten lava in the sea hardened into solid rock.

Sometimes, these events are deadly. In 1783, the Laki volcano filled the sky with sulphuric acid after an eruption. Deadly clouds destroyed crops, killed animals, and blocked out the sun leading to a freezing winter in which 9,000 Icelanders starved to death.

Holy smoke

Volcanoes can create as well as destroy. Humans have often clustered on the fertile land around volcanic vents, despite the dangers. In ancient times, some volcanoes were worshipped as gods.

In a way, it's not such an absurd belief. At the dawn of Earth's history, volcanic eruptions created the conditions for life to evolve.

Volcanoes may also bring humanity's story to an end. The so-called 'supervolcano' at Yellowstone in America will one day explode with the force of 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs, turning the skies red and sending the earth into a new, devastating ice-age.

You Decide

  1. Are volcanoes exciting or frightening?
  2. Do humans overestimate their own importance in the world? Or do we underestimate it?

Activities

  1. Watch a video of a volcanic eruption and use it as inspiration to write a poem, produce a piece of music, or create an artwork.
  2. Do some research on a famous volcanic eruption of the past, e.g. Vesuvius or Mount St Helens. Then design a graphic showing how the volcano happened and what the effects were.

Some People Say...

“There's nothing in nature that humans won't conquer one day.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Did humans really once worship volcanoes?
Yes. In fact, the word volcano comes from the name of the Roman god Vulcan, who was believed to live in Mount Etna in Sicily.
And how dangerous are volcanoes really?
Very. Volcanoes are often dormant for decades, or even centuries, so humans gather round them to farm the fertile soil. But volcanoes can erupt with little warning, killing thousands.
But lava flows are pretty obvious. How hard can it be to just get out of the way?
It's not lava that does most of the killing. Far more deadly is ash, which spreads from volcanoes in huge clouds. It can suffocate people and crush buildings. Fast moving mudslides, caused by melting snow and ice, are also big killers. Also clouds of poisonous gas. Overall, if a volcano starts going, you need to get out of the way, and fast.

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