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The 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption and the reconstruction of geography

May 2011

Read a Commentary from March 2011's Geographical Journal by Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer.

The 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption and the reconstruction of geography

The following abstract is for a commentary article that was published in The Geographical Journal, Volume 177 Issue 1 Pages 04-11, March 2011 

"The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the reconstruction of geography"

Despite the chaos wrought by the recent eruption in Iceland, Europe has a long history of dealing with the effects of Icelandic volcanoes (Witham and Oppenheimer 2004). This article reviews the scientific background to the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (Sigmundsson 2010), touching on the threat to aviation, and the response to the eruption in Iceland and further afield. The events pose the question as to why technocratic nations in northern Europe were apparently so surprised and poorly prepared for an event that was anticipated in the scientific community. We argue that the apparent breakdown of communication between scientific research, policy-makers and the public is a manifestation of a wider problem – one that is well suited to geographical research, combining as it does both human and physical dimensions. The management of geophysical hazards that are low probability and high impact – such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2004 Asian tsunami – does not fit easily into governance structures, at local, national and international levels, particularly given the high levels of scientific uncertainty involved. We argue that transdisciplinary channels for the movement of knowledge beyond the academic community need to be enhanced, in conjunction with wider, public discussion of the nature of scientific uncertainty itself.

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in South Iceland began as a rather small, photogenic emission of lava along a fissure at Fimmvörðuhálsi, located between two ice-caps – Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull (Plate 1). In the build up to the initial eruption on 20 March, there were some remarkable geophysical indications of impending eruption apparent in seismic and GPS data streams collected by the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) and Institute of Earth Sciences (IES) at the University of Iceland1 (IES IMO 2010a 2010b). With hindsight, these can be readily seen as eruption precursors, but a general problem in eruption forecasting is that while such signals typically reflect transport of magma in the crust, not all such episodes culminate in eruption. Sometimes the magma stalls at shallow levels in the crust to form an intrusion. In fact, there were several intrusions of magma beneath Eyjafjallajökull in the past two decades, none of which was accompanied by eruption (Hooper et al. 2009; Pedersen and Sigmundsson 2006; Sigmundsson et al. 2009; Hjaltadóttir 2009).

The IMO and IES monitor volcanic and seismic activity across Iceland. While the IMO has the formal responsibility for surveillance, in practice both organisations own monitoring equipment and share data, thus maximising the available expertise when an eruption occurs. The IMO also works closely with the UK Met Office, which hosts a Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) responsible for tracking and forecasting spread of ash clouds in the North Atlantic in order to advise the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) via its International Airways Volcano Watch Operations Group (http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/aviation/vaac/; Lechner et al. 2009). Eruptions in Iceland occur every few years and the airspace above the North Atlantic and Western Europe is among the most crowded worldwide. For this reason, each day for the last several years the London VAAC has run its ash cloud trajectory model to simulate the plume from a hypothetical eruption at Katla volcano (Mýrdalsjökull) based on prevailing wind patterns. This supports a rapid response to a real eruption given that there is usually very limited information on the key source parameters – amount and height distribution of ash clouds – when a new episode begins. Once an eruption is underway, satellite imagery can be used to track ash clouds, with combinations of infrared bands used to identify and quantify ash and associated volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere. These preparations demonstrate that the aviation hazard posed by Icelandic volcanism has been recognised by scientists, operational meteorological institutes and the aviation authorities for many years – and yet it seems this appreciation of the hazard had not led to sophisticated, integrated UK or EU policy in advance of the recent volcanic activity: research findings had not penetrated the policy community. The UK National Risk Register2 first published by the Cabinet Office in 2008 did not mention the volcanic threat despite advice given at an early stage in its drafting of the specific threat of Icelandic eruptions (nor does it discuss seismic hazard in the UK). It is now being revised in light of the eruption. Even within the scientific community, projects aimed at investigating the threat of plumes from Iceland had been proposed but not funded. Thus, the events beginning on the 14 April 2010 required a rapid and extreme response to what was in fact a small eruption, and in the reactive formation of advisory committees and conferences across the EU. In this context, European governance structures failed to heed the advice of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, recently articulated in the Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005–2015, which emphasises the importance of preparation over response as a means of reducing disasters.

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