From Iceland — Katlaaaaarrgghh (Not This Again)!

Katlaaaaarrgghh (Not This Again)!

Published April 17, 2012

Katlaaaaarrgghh (Not This Again)!

What time is it? Time for the annual Katla eruption scare, apparently. I was recently forwarded an article from The Telegraph – a generally well thought-of UK newspaper – which was written by someone who appears to have some genuine knowledge of the subject at hand. The piece essentially claims that Katla is brewing, ready for an imminent eruption that could lay waste to parts of Iceland and screw things up on a global scale. Reason to panic, then?
I’m going to lay this down simply, in a desperate attempt to get as far away from the media scaremongering as possible. Katla HAS seen an increase in activity lately. Katla COULD erupt within the next few months. Katla WILL erupt at some point. And none of this is reason to worry about a thing.
Volcano prediction is a muddy science. Imprecise at best and more often than not totally woeful on any kind of medium to long-term time scale. Forecasting isn’t much better, and that’s just assigning percentage probabilities to things. Let’s take the infamous Hekla as an example and look at the years of recent eruptions: 1970, 1981, 1990, 2000. Its next eruption should be in 2010 then, right? Wrong. It’s even showing many of the detectable signs of being ‘ready’ to erupt, but it hasn’t. It’s a year or two ‘late’ already. Hekla is an odd example and volcanoes are rarely kind enough to offer such a regular schedule of activity—things only get harder from there. The best we can do is make a vague forecast – “an X% chance of an eruption of size Y or larger before date Z”. An eruption at Katla has already been FORECAST  by people in the know, but there is nowhere near enough activity to yet be able to conclusively make any kind of PREDICTION.
But when it does go, it’s going to be huge, yeah? Again, there is nothing to say this. It’s certainly possible—Katla has a history of quite large eruptions and it has been a relatively long time since the last major eruption back in 1918, but this doesn’t guarantee anything. The eruption could be small, it could be large, it could be ‘catastrophic’. It could be explosive or it could be the kind of pretty, tourist-friendly, lava-fountaining eruption we saw on Fimmvörðuháls in 2010. We don’t know.
Now, that’s not to say there isn’t any decent reporting out there. There is, if you know what to look for. In fact, the Telegraph article I referenced earlier wasn’t bad at heart… it had just been passed through the wringer of journalistic sensationalism a couple of times before being published (and garnished with an inaccurate photo caption—the cherry on top), because that’s what sells papers. Alas, what little accurate and levelheaded journalism there is out there is buried deep within piles and piles of, frankly, complete shit (not naming any names here!).
Quite aside from all of this science and sensationalism, though, there is a more basic reason why you shouldn’t worry: BECAUSE YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT ANYWAY. You could refuse to go to Iceland because of the ‘risk’, but you’d be missing out on visiting a wonderful country. You could refuse to use air travel in case you get stuck somewhere, but you’d be missing out on visiting ANY country. You could prepare an emergency bunker full of food supplies and gasoline, but you’d be a paranoid weirdo. Rest assured that governments and organisations around the world should have pretty comprehensive guidelines in place regarding how to deal with a large Icelandic eruption (especially since Eyjafjallajökull caught everyone with their pants around their ankles). They will (should…) do the best they can and there’s nothing you can do to affect that. Just live your life already!
There are only a select few groups of people who really have a vested interest here. First, the local residents, who would be on the ‘front line’ if something were to happen. They should, well, be prepared. Second, international organisations like civil aviation authorities and government bodies, whose job it will be to actually deal with this stuff. Third, the scientists who are trying to understand it all… and to improve the science to help the former two groups. If you don’t fall into one of those, then chill out, relax and enjoy.
Oh and please visit Iceland (while you still can)…    

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