Volcano science update: Two surprising reasons to go boom


Geologic wonder and part-time smoke bomb, Eyjafjallajokull, was still burping out ash clouds today, though experts say the eruption is showing signs of slowing down. Our thoughts are with all the stranded travelers and the tongue-tied TV journalists forced to go on trying to pronounce the volcano's name.

On the plus side, the Eyjafjallajokull eruption has become a bright and shiny news hook for all sorts of interesting volcano science stories.

First fun fact:One volcanic eruption can trigger a blast in a nearby volcano
You may have heard that eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull have, in the past, been followed by eruptions at nearby, easier-to-pronounce Mt. Katla. There's not enough data to know whether that connection is more than coincidence, but there is a scientific basis behind the speculation.

Volcanoes explode because the pressure of the magma building up in the chamber forces it out, which then relieves the stress in the chamber; but what relieves stress in the one chamber could increase stress in a neighboring chamber.

Next up: Some recent research suggests that climate change could trigger more frequent eruptions in Iceland
How's that supposed to work? Like linking individual volcanoes, it's all about pressure. As glaciers and ice caps melt—which they are—there's less pressure on the crust of the Earth below. Relieving that weight makes it easier for subsurface rock to become magma. Increased levels of magma mean the volcanoes that pop up out of the ice cap are likely to erupt more frequently—say, a 30-year gap between eruptions, rather than a 58-year gap. That effect could carry over to other volcano-prone places that are suffering from a lot of ice melt. Alaska, for instance.


  1. A interesting read on Iceland’s battle with volcanos is a book on mans battle with nature, The Control of Nature by John McPhee. A story about a bunch of crazy Icelanders with fire hoses trying to stop lava flows.

  2. I was under the impression that all one needed to do was have Jezza, Hammond, and Capt. Slow messing around on ones volcano to cause it to erupt.

  3. How long before the do-nothing-about-global-warming guys say that there’s no need for any action because the increase in volcanos will cool us off?

      1. It’s off-topic, but not grossly so.

        I had the same thought, and I’m sure others did as well.

      2. I have read the moderation policy and I don’t think this post violates any of it. How is a post about the politics of the Climate Change debate in a blog entry about the effects of volcanoes on Climate Change “off-topic”? At most it’s a “connect the dots” post – as encouraged in the policy – connecting this post with all of the Boing-Boing posts on Climate Change politics.

        Are you claiming this to be a “high-jack of a thread into a controversial topic”? What’s controversial about it? The theory will be advanced; I was just wondering how long it will take before it is.

        In any case, my “high-jack” has been successful – see post #12! Now where’s my ransom? ;-)

    1. Climate models already take cooling from sulfate and other aerosols into account. it’s not just volcanoes, either. there are many anthropogenic sources of sulfate aerosols and other P.M. that are of more concern than those of geogenic origin.

      I’m not sure I buy the “climate change increases volcanoes argument,” though. How does relieving surface pressure increase magma? Rocks are liquefied at high pressures, not low ones.

      1. My guess would be that as the upper level pressure decreases from the erosion of the ice caps, there is expanded room for gaseous pressure to build up within pockets in the magma chambers.

      2. It’s not a fully validated theory by any means but it goes along the lines of:
        If you have several miles of ice piled up in a particular spot it weighs a LOT (see previous Boing-Boing post on the Alot). This might be enough to literally keep a lid on a volcano. There seem to be a couple of little ones in Greenland and Antarctica that don’t spew anything into the atmosphere because of this.

        Melt the ice and the volcano flips its lid. Once you get an initial flow it can get bigger: kind of like a run in a stocking. There seems to be some at least statistical correlation between one volcano’s activity and those of its neighbours so it could even get worse from there.

        We won’t know for sure until we have some more data and experience on the matter. Of course at that point we might all be dead but it’s a small price to pay for Absolute Certainty and one we’ve always been willing to pay in the past.

  4. I’ve often wondered about the effects of global warming on volcanic activity. Volcanos seem to be a sort of natural balancing mechanism for the planet. They emit a great deal of particulate matter, and that helps to reflect more sunlight. If the planet gets too hot, the planet has ways to cool itself down, the same way that we sweat.

    Of course, and I think especially with volcanos and hurricanes, the problem with the earth’s natural mechanisms is they are very very bad for us, you know, people. Lightning is a good example. If we have electrical imbalance, we get a static shock. When the planet has one, its get 1.6 gigawatts. When we have pressure build up, we get gas. The planet erupts.

    This is really where the entire logic of the climate-denial set fails. They for some reason think we harp about this stuff because we are worried about a flower or something, when in fact our concern is rising sea levels, water wars, Atlantic conveyor current deactivation and calderic eruptions.

  5. There is so much scientific illiteracy in the reporting on this event. Honestly, I heard a “Science Correspondent” say, “Part of the problem is that this volcano is sitting on top of a huge glacier.”

    Interesting geology, that Iceland.

    1. I suspect he meant “on top of” to have the common (informal) meaning of “very close to”, referring to the floods it’s caused.

  6. Well personally I conclude that some superhyperthermophillic organisms not only tolerate magma temperatures but indeed generate magma pockets through their own fast metabolism (think flaming charred mulch piles.) They’ve evolved this method to not only inject their spores into high atmosphere where solar wind can take a few away, but even to enclose them in tough shells. Of what are interstellar dust clouds composed?

    Heh. Volcano: a bursting fungal puffball spreading the life infection to the galaxy’s remaining sterile planets.

  7. …The Icelanders need to take lessons from the Pacific Island tribes on how to deal with volcanos. Just have a good old-fashioned human sacrifice.

    I nominate Bjork for sacrifice. And we’ll waive the virgin requirement in her case.

  8. Here we go РEyjafjallaj̦kull Рthe phonetic pronunciation:

    Ey (to rhyme with Hay) Ye (to rhyme with Huh?) Fett (to rhyme with Bet) Le (to rhyme with Huh?)Yo (as in Yo-yo) Kull (to rhyme with Skull)

    Ey Ye Fett Le Yo Kull (double LL’s in Icelandic are often pronounced TL) – impress your friends

  9. Pronounciation of Eyjafjallajökull

    The only audio recording with pronounciation of “Katla” in Icelandic, that I could find on the ‘net, is this Youtube video with a cute baby named Katla (name said at 0:54).

    I understand Icelandic by association with my native tounge, Swedish. Differences in pronounciation is rather straightforward, but their use of tonality and emphasis is a complete mystery to me, and their grammar is very antique from a Swedes point of view, altough most bits and pieces of it still live on in Swedish dialects.

  10. The reporters in the video can’t even agree on how to pronounce “glacier”, and you want them to say “Eyjafjallajokull” correctly?!

  11. I was under the impression that Eyjafjallajökull was the name of the glacier and that the volcano itself has no name. Not that this would solve the problem of having to mention Eyjafjallajökull all the time anyway.

    1. The name is made up of 3 parts Eyja (literal translation is island) is the name of the volcano. Fjall means Mountain and Jökull means glacier.

      So you could call it IslandMountainGlacier but that would be a bit wierd.

      1. That’s what I mean, it’s more a generic name (see #29). In fact, I just heard there is now a movement to give the volcano/eruption an official name, and one suggestion is to auction the right to name it on eBay.

  12. Two French musicians have been stranded at my neighbors house for a week now, bored and running out of money, I feel bad for them, but on the bright side it gave me a chance to buy one of their cds.

  13. @Irene Delse
    “Not “Mt. Eyjafjallajokull”, please. The “fjalla” element already means mountain in Icelandic.”

    I’m Icelandic and may I say that this just made me erupt with laughter.
    Everyone in Iceland knows that Eyjafjallajökull is difficult to pronounced and aside from some VERY gentle ribbing, no one is actually pressuring “you guys” (the world) to do it pitch-perfect. So you wouldn’t hear this kind of condescending palaver from us.
    Eyja = Island (sing.)
    Fjalla = Mountains (plur., possessive case)
    Jökull = Glacier (sing.)

    This is not like saying Mount Ararat (which seems to be equivalent to saying “Mount Mountain of Descent”), but rather this is a peculiar name referring to a glacier (not a mountain) and contains in its name references to three types of landforms (see above).
    So if you wanna be a smarty pants about it, you could either say “Eyjafjalla Glacier” or “The Glacier of the Island Mountains” (pushing us past Mordor waaayyy into Elven territory).

    But frankly, you can call the damn thing “Bob” for all we care, so long as you don’t blame the nation for natural occurrences (try googling “I hate Iceland”) or the paranoid decision of British politicians to suspend all air travel (coincidentally at the brink of an election where no one wants an avoidable airline disaster on their hands)

  14. And by that I meant it is currently a generic name for the location/glacier. The story I just read about giving the explosive bit an official name is toying with the thing being called Paris Hilton.

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