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.