A huge volcano in southern Iceland is belching higher quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere than previously thought, prompting scientists to warn it could be about to erupt.

Should Katla do so, it has the potential to dwarf the impact of the nearby Eyjafjallajokull volcano that blew its top in April 2010, creating an ash cloud that grounded flights across Europe and caused chaos in airports around the world.

The eruption caused such widespread disruption to the aviation sector because of the damage small particles of ice and rock in the ash cloud does to aircraft engines.

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Volcanologists feared at the time that the Eyjafjallajokul blast could trigger Katla to follow suit, all three prior eruptions from that peak recorded over the last millennia having awakened its more dangerous neighbour.

Katla, its name Icelandic for “kettle”, stands 1,512 metres tall but lies partially buried beneath 700 metres of the Myrdalsjokull glacier.

It last erupted in October 1918 and is seemingly long overdue a repeat, having previously been relied upon to do so approximately once every 50 years.

Academics from Leeds University writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters sparked concern over an imminent eruption with a paper observing that the volcano is currently releasing between 12 and 14 kilotons of CO2 every day, suggesting its magma chambers are filling up.

Observing that Katla is “a globally important source of atmospheric CO2 in spite of being previously assumed to be a minor gas emitter”, Evgenia Ilyinskaya and her team suggested the “highly hazardous” landmark accounts for “five per cent of total global volcanic emissions”, stressing the “urgent” need for “more accurately quantified... climate assessments”.

“There is no way of telling when it will erupt, just that it will,” Sarah Barsotti of the Icelandic Meteorological Office told The Sunday Times in the wake of the report’s publication.

The extent of possible disruption to air travel “depends on the intensity of the eruption and the direction of the winds at the time,” she added.

But geophysics professor Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson of the University of Iceland branded the warning “premature” and suggested more studies are needed into the cause of the intense CO2 emissions, given that insufficient data exists to record what constitutes “normal” levels of the gas for the volcano.

“It’s possible that Katla works as a kind of vent or exhaust channel for gasses that are emitted from magma deep under the southern part of the volcano belt,”

For now, the situation is being closely monitored.

The Economist reported last year that the summer of 821 was wet, cold and yielded a poor harvest. Then winter came. Temperatures plunged. Blizzards smothered towns and villages. The Danube, the Rhine and the Seine—rivers that never froze—froze so hard that the ice covering them could be crossed not just on foot but by horse and cart. Nor did spring bring respite. Terrible hailstorms followed the snow. Plague and famine followed the storms. The next few winters were worse. Fear stalked the land. Paschasius Radbertus, a monk of Corbie, in what is now northern France, wrote that God Himself was angry. Yet it was not God that wrought this destruction, according to Ulf Büntgen of the University of Cambridge, but rather a volcano now called Katla, on what was then an unknown island, now called Iceland.

At the moment Katla, one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, located near the island’s southern tip, sleeps beneath 700 metres of ice. It has so slept, albeit fitfully, for almost 100 years. Its last eruption big enough to break through the ice was in 1918. A score of such ice-breaking awakenings have been recorded by Icelanders since the first Norsemen settled there in 870. In 821, however, Iceland was not on the Norsemen’s horizon. They were concentrating their activities on the lootable monasteries and villages of coastal Europe. There is thus no man-made record of what Katla was up to then. But Dr Büntgen thinks he has found a natural one. A memorandum of an eruption that coincides with the events described by Radbertus is, he believes, written in a prehistoric forest.

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