Months of Geologic Unrest Signaled Reawakening of Icelandic Volcano

*Monitoring volcanoes helps researchers understand the processes that drive them to erupt*

Months of volcanic restlessness preceded the eruptions this spring of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, providing insight into what roused it from its centuries of slumber.

An international team of researchers analyzed geophysical changes in the long-dormant volcano leading up to its eruptions in March and April 2010. In a study published in the Nov. 18 issue of the journal Nature, the scientists suggest that magma flowing beneath the volcano may have triggered its reawakening.

About the image: Artist’s conception illustrating the three-dimensional geometry (left) and timing of events (right column) at Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. The complicated “plumbing” inside the volcano consists of inter-connected conduits, sills and dikes that allow magma to rise from deep within the Earth. The first three panels in the time series show distinct intrusive episodes of magma that caused measurable deformation and seismic events in 1994, 1999 and in the first several months of 2010. No eruptive activity occurred during this period of unrest. The fourth panel illustrates the first eruption, between March 20 and April 12, 2010, when basaltic magma (red) erupted onto the Earth’s surface on the flank of the mountain. The fifth panel shows the second eruption, between April 14 and May 22, when a different type of magma (trachyandesite, shown in orange), erupted explosively under the ice-capped summit. The interaction of magma and ice initially increased the explosive activity, generating a plume of particles that rose as high as the 30,000-foot flight level and disrupted air traffic across Europe for weeks. Image credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

“Several months of unrest preceded the eruptions, with magma moving around downstairs in the plumbing and making noise in the form of earthquakes,” says study co-author Kurt Feigl, a professor of geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “By monitoring volcanoes, we can understand the processes that drive them to erupt.”

Feigl’s research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation through a RAPID award (Grant for Rapid Response Research).

*Source: National Science Foundation (NSF)

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