Iceland Volcano
© Icelandic Coast Guard
Ready for more of the same?
We're not quite back to the pre-plane era, but air travel over and around the north Atlantic might get a lot more disrupted in the coming years.

Volcanologists say the fireworks exploding from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland, which is responsible for the ash cloud that is grounding all commercial flights across northern Europe, may become a familiar sight. Increased rumblings under Iceland over the past decade suggest that the area is entering a more active phase, with more eruptions and the potential for some very large bangs.

"Volcanic activity on Iceland appears to follow a periodicity of around 50 to 80 years. The increase in activity over the past 10 years suggests we might be entering a more active phase with more eruptions," says Thorvaldur Thordarson, an expert on Icelandic volcanoes at the University of Edinburgh, UK. By contrast, the latter half of the 20th century was unusually quiet.

Along with increased volcanism, more seismic activity has been recorded around Iceland, including the magnitude-6.1 quake that rocked Reykjavik in May 2008.

Rifting strain

In 1998 Gudrún Larsen from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik and colleagues used 800 years' worth of data from lava layers, ice cores and historical records to show that Iceland's volcanism goes through cycles of high and low activity. The peaks of these cycles seem to be strongly linked to bursts of earthquakes, which release the build-up of strain on tectonic faults near Iceland caused by the rifting of the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition, the periodicity may be linked to pulses of magma coming from the mantle and pressure fluctuations at the surface caused by glaciers melting and geothermal activity.

Larsen and colleagues showed that the Vatnajökull ice cap region - which includes the highly active Grímsvötn and Bárdarbunga volcanoes - experienced between 6 and 11 eruptions every 40 years during phases of high activity, compared with no more than three eruptions per 40 years during low-activity phases. Other regions of Iceland appear to follow a similar pattern to Vatnajökull.

As well as becoming more frequent, eruptions seem to get more intense during the high-activity phases. A number of Iceland's most devastating eruptions - including that of the volcano Laki in 1783 that killed over half of Iceland's livestock and led to a famine that wiped out about a quarter of the human population - have occurred when the Atlantic rift system has been active. "If we are entering a more active phase, these bigger eruptions will become more likely," says Thordarson.

Judging by recent volcanic and earthquake activity, Thordarson and his colleagues believe that Iceland is entering its next active phase and estimate it will last for 60 years or so, peaking between 2030 and 2040.

Journal reference: Geology, vol 26, p 943