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Unstrange Phenomena

23 March 2010

Come to Iceland: Experience Living With a Volcano in Your BackYard

From Denny: Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice but even the residents were not ready for this powerful frightening display from Nature. Near the Eyjafjallajoku glacier, one of the country's largest glaciers, there is a half mile long fissure that opened on 21 March after the fifth largest volcano in Iceland suddenly erupted. Check out the spectacular video clip of the lava flow.

Iceland only has a population of 320,000 people. Their country is known for being the center of a large volcanic hot spot, hugging the Atlantic's mid-oceanic ridge. It's not as if Icelanders are unaware of these volcanoes. They have erupted often throughout their history of living there. When the earth's plates move and bump into each other, molten magma deep underground pushes it's way up to the surface through volcanic eruptions to relieve the pressure. And you thought you had a bad day at work. Can you imagine living with volcanoes in your virtual backyard every day? It sure makes long commutes and the bumper to bumper traffic feel like fun at a theme park in comparison.

This volcano in southern Iceland has not erupted in almost 200 years. Scientists are concerned this eruption and large fissure could set off a volatile volcano nearby, resulting in something far more dangerous with a much larger eruption. The volcano nearby is the Karla volcano. It's positioned just under the thick Myrdalsjokull icecap. Now if this big sweetheart erupts it could be quite the bully, creating massive flooding.

This Eyjafjallajokull volcano that is located near the glacier of the same name looked scary enough to everyone with a pair of eyes to witness it as it spewed ash and molten lava constantly into the air. Yet scientists have deemed this volcano virtually peaceful. If this one is peaceful I don't think I want to be nearby one that is considered a rowdy boy at a nightclub.

What's interesting about this eruption is that it did not occur on the volcano's summit but rather a fissure opened up on a slope. Because of this scientists seem to think there is no immediate danger that this glacier could melt and start flooding the area.

When scientists took an aerial survey the next day, examining the lava flow out of the fissure, they realized that while the eruption struck near the glacier it was in an area that did not have any ice. "This is the best possible place for an eruption," said Tumi Gudmundsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland.

For wise precautions, officials evacuated about 450 people in surrounding areas. While a state of emergency was declared there were not any reports of injuries or damage as this is a remote area, sparsely populated. The caustic gases the eruption released was of concern to livestock left behind in the evacuation. "We had to leave all our animals behind," Eli Ragnarsdottir, a 47-year-old farmer, told RUV, Iceland's national broadcaster from an evacuation center. "We got a call and a text message ... and we just went."

Of course, we all know the drill: scientists are still unable to predict what comes next. For now, our technology and data does not allow for predicting the exact timing of when an earthquake will strike or a volcano will erupt. "It could stop tomorrow, it could last for weeks or months. We cannot say at this stage," Gudmundsson said.

When was the last time this Eyjafjallajokull volcano blew? It was in 1821 and was termed a "lazy" eruption because it decided to be an annoying drama queen and keep erupting slowly and continuously for a two year period. Definitely this volcano likes attention.

The locals did have some idea the volcano might erupt as there were thousands of small earthquakes rocking the area just in the past month. Did you know that Icelandic scientists have been monitoring this volcano recently. They have employed seismometers and global positioning instruments. "Yet," says Gudmundsson, "the beginning of Saturday's eruption was so indistinct that it initially went undetected by the instruments."

"The volcano has been inflating since the beginning of the year, both rising and swelling," said Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland's Institute of Earth Science. "Even though we were seeing increased seismic activity, it could have been months or years before we saw an eruption like this ... we couldn't say that there was an imminent risk for the area."

And just when you think those volcanoes might only be Iceland's problem, check out this factoid: When the Laki volcano erupted in the mid-1780's it changed weather patterns all across Europe. A lot of people died from famine when their crops and livestock were destroyed from this eruption.

Here's a bit of Icelandic trivia for you: It was the Vikings who first settled Iceland back in the 9th century. Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice because of so many crazy volcanoes and glaciers. During the Middle Ages, the Hekla volcano which is the most active volcano in the country, was termed "Gateway to Hell" by the locals. They honestly believed that souls were dragged down to hell at this place. Hmmm... they might be on to something.

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