Bardarbunga, the largest volcano in Iceland, is preparing to erupt. And if it does, it could send an enormous ash cloud across Europe, affecting travel, air quality, and agriculture. Encased under the Vatnajokull glacier, the 6,590 foot volcano has been hit by four earthquakes measuring up to 4.7 on the Richter scale within the past week. “The reason for the earthquakes in this place is that the volcano Bardarbunga is inflating, i.e. the pressure of magma in the magma chamber is increasing,” said seismology expert Páll Einarsson to the Daily Star. “It has been doing this since the last eruption ended, in February 2015.”
When Bardarbunga last erupted in 2014, it made news as the largest eruption Europe had seen in 240 years. Although the eruption did not affect travel, it did negatively impact air quality throughout Europe. Several years earlier, in 2010, volcanic eruptions at Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland spewed out a massive ash cloud, which caused enormous travel disruptions throughout Europe. During the relatively small eruptions and their aftermath, 20 countries shut down their airspace to commercial flights while 10 million travelers were affected by the disruptions.
Although the recent earthquakes are signs of a future volcanic eruption, that does not mean that the eruption is imminent. “The volcano is clearly preparing for its next eruption, that may happen in the next few years,” said Einarsson. “The earthquakes last week are just the symptoms of this process, they do not cause the volcano to erupt.” However, it is better to prepare now than be caught off-guard later, particularly since Bardarbunga’s glacier-bound status may cause a particularly violent eruption. Dr. Thomas Walter of the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences told the Daily Mirror, “In that case, we’d have had a water vapor explosion with a volcanic ash cloud even bigger and longer lasting than the one that followed the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010”.