Speculation has been swirling about the glacier-covered volcano in southeast Iceland, but the activity of volcanoes is notoriously difficult to predict. Seismic and geological measurements can provide indications, but never an exact timeframe for an eruption.
Geophysicist Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson provided some much-needed perspective on the matter, in an interview with radio station Bylgjan this morning, Vísir reports.
Magnús points out that the volcano has been a magnet for attention since last autumn, when several crevices in the glacier were spotted, as well as signs that heat was rising up under the ice.
“Now it’s reached a sort of balance, where the geothermal heat has decreased again,” he said. “But we see no indications that the activity is decreasing. […] We don’t see anything that indicates that the process is slowing, which is a sign a volcano gives before an eruption.”
Despite this, Magnús emphasises there is no immediate cause for alarm. He does not believe there will be an eruption in the coming weeks or months.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to go camping at Skaftafell [National Park] this summer, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are people monitoring the situation,” he said. “I think that if it were fast approaching an eruption, I’d expect that there would be a lot more evidence for it.”
Öræfajökull has also erupted before, to devastating effect. Twice, in fact: in 1362 and 1727. The former eruption was enormous – some 10 cubic kilometres of material was blown into the atmosphere, and the district around the volcano was uninhabited for about 40 years afterwards. It was the largest eruption in Iceland since Hekla erupted in 800 BC.
The eruption in 1727 was smaller, but was nonetheless devastating. Three people and many farm animals were killed in the ensuing glacial flooding that the eruption provoked.
Glacial flooding is probably the greatest danger posed now, should Öræfajökull erupt. The ice that covers the caldera is estimated to be about 550 metres thick, and rests hundreds of metres above sea level. Even a small eruption would be likely to provoke massive flooding into the region. Fortunately, not many people live in the area, and preparedness and evacuation procedures are much better now than they were in the 18th century.