In 2010, a small eruption with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) rating of 1 occurred in Eyafjoll, Iceland, followed by secondary eruptions rating as high as VEI 4 eruption. Throughout the three eruption phases of this event (the first initial eruption; the second tephra, lava, and ash ejection, irregular seismic activity and new crater formation; and the third with a return to dormancy) Iceland, most of Europe, and other areas in the Northern Hemisphere were impacted, primarily with increased airborne ash. The eruption was determined to be complete after snow returned to the peak in October 2010 by seismologists at the University of Iceland. As of 2012 the area remained prone to geothermic activity.
The ice cap where the eruption took place, called Eyjafjallajökull, is part of a chain of ice caps in Southern Iceland. The caldera, or volcanic crater, that formed as a result of previous eruptions had been dormant since 1921. The 2010 eruption began in March with an effusive stage, during which olivine basaltic andesite lava was ejected 4 km into the atmosphere. The second phase, beginning April 14, transformed the event into an explosive phase. The second eruption occurred under 200 m of glacial ice, which caused rapid melting. The meltwater then flowed into the erupting volcano where the rapid vaporization significantly increased the explosivity of the volcano. As the lava cooled from the water, it transformed the ash into an abrasive glass-rich ash. The ash granules as well as the massive spread of the dust cloud caused the high level of ash that can damage aircraft engines; this condition resulted in the cancellation of flights over the North Atlantic and in Europe and led to air traffic disruptions on a global scale.
The greatest environmental impact was the effect of the ash on Europe's waterways and agricultural systems, but that was minimal in comparison to other eruptions. The glass and rock mixture is fatal to some plant species as it prevents photosynthesis, but no environmental degradation to vegetation was noted in 2011 as a result of the 2010 eruption.
The volcano did not have a lasting effect on the global climate according to climatologists. The limited amount of gases emitted during the eruption was easily absorbed by the atmosphere. While the volcano had some devastating short term effects, U.S. Geological Survey analysts said that the eruption did not emit much carbon, and there would not be any long-term global effects from this particular eruption. As for the volcano's effect on climate change, which was a concern at the time, “there was more reduction in CO2 from airplanes not flying all week than in the amount that came from the volcano,” according to Alan Robock, an environmental scientist and volcanologist at Rutgers University.
This situation interrupted the flow of the world economy because of the postponement in the transportation of goods and people and because of its impact on food and agricultural production. These disturbances also affected the international stock markets.
Southern Iceland saw the worst damage with ash fall as deep as 6 inches in some places. The highest risk to wildlife and vegetation occurs when ash becomes clay-like after becoming wet. In a response to concerns from the scientific community, the Icelandic government issued an order to move livestock to safer areas or to slaughter earlier than desired. Twenty-eight percent of Iceland's agricultural workforce is located in Southern Iceland.
The effects on humans were short term, mostly eye and upper respiratory irritation from exposure to volcanic ash. Children and adults with pre-existing asthma were hardest hit, the ash exacerbating their symptoms. No hospitalizations were reported as a result of the volcano. The exposure and resulting effects on the population did not have long-term effects on populations versus a control group. The use of protective eyewear, masks, and clothing to prevent further exposure was recommended by Iceland's government and health officials.
Some volcanic gases can be deadly, especially those containing sulfur, carbon dioxide, and sulfate aerosois, which can facilitate the creation of chlorine monoxide once in the stratosphere. No severe consequences were recorded from hazardous gases in relation to this eruption.
See also Asthma ; Climate change ; Volcanic eruptions .
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Alyson C. Heimer, MA