Iceland Is Experiencing Its Biggest Continuous Volcanic Eruption in Centuries

Lava flows from the Bardarbunga volcano on August 31, 2014. Reuters

The last time an Icelandic volcano made headlines around the world was when the tongue-twister Eyjafjallajökull spewed tons of ash into the air in 2010, halting thousands of flights and costing airlines and passengers more than $7 billion in lost revenue.

Despite the power and global impact of that volcano's several-week-long eruption, it barely affected Iceland, dropping only a small amount of ash near its peak, Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a geophysics and volcanology researcher at the University of Iceland's Institute of Earth Sciences told Newsweek during an interview at his office in Reykjavik at the beginning of October.

But Eyjafjallajökull is paltry compared to the recent eruption of Bardarbunga (or Bárðarbunga in Icelandic), a volcano in a remote area of central Iceland that began venting lava and fumes in earnest on August 31, Sigmundsson said.

By October 1, that eruption had already spewed out more sulfur dioxide than any other Icelandic volcano in the past several hundred years and showed no signs of stopping, said Sigmundsson, whose calm and friendly demeanor, which is common among denizens of this volcano-forged land, contrasted with his message of the volcano's ominous power.

Since then, the eruption has continued at the same rate, coughing up more lava and sulfur fumes.

"The concentrations have been reaching unhealthy levels in large parts of the country," John Stevenson, a volcano researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told Newsweek Wednesday. "The area affected depends on the wind direction but includes Reykjavik. It has been causing painful eyes and throats, led to cancelation of sporting events, and asthmatics are encouraged to stay indoors," he said.

The fumes have cast a blue haze across the landscape and at times made the sun appear red, according to a post at a blog called the Daily Kos.

So far, there haven't been any deaths attributed to the volcano's eruption, but the high levels of pollution have been linked to increased deaths by cardiopulmonary diseases in the past, especially amongst the elderly, Stevenson said.

Researchers survey the Holuhraun eruption. John A. Stevenson / Volcan01010

The eruption has produced a lava field that is growing about 0.6 square miles per day, and which now covers an area roughly the size of Manhattan. The average thickness of the lava is about 45 feet—enough to reach the windows on a four-story building—although these geologic estimates are uncertain since the thickness can only be measured over a small area, Stevenson said.

The molten rock is "spraying out of the ground as high as the Statue of Liberty is tall," and covering the equivalent of a soccer pitch every eight minutes, Stevenson said.

The current eruption is taking place at the Holuhraun lava fields, about 28 miles away from where scientists expected the volcano to erupt, at Bardarbunga's caldera, or crater, where lava has come out of the mountain in past eruptions.

Luckily Reykjavik is relatively far away from active volcanoes. Icelandic Met Office via Reuters

The caldera is covered in a thick sheet of ice, which is part of Vatnajökull, or the Vatna glacier, Iceland's largest.

"We are lucky the eruption didn't take place there," Sigmundsson said, pointing to Bardarbunga's ice-covered caldera on a map. Instead, a swarm of small earthquakes in late August progressed from near the volcano's main chamber by the caldera, and toward Holuhraun, through which lava eventually erupted on the last day of the month.

There's still a possibility that another eruption could occur closer to or on the caldera, Sigmundsson said. If this happens under the ice, it has the potential to could cause flooding and impact the lives of the farmers living downhill from the volcano alongside the Skjálfandafljót river. An eruption under the ice (and resulting flood) could have an immense impact on tourism in the country's northeast, since one would have to go all the way around the island to reach this area, Stevenson said.

Scientists are continuously monitoring the eruption site with various types of equipment and video cameras, and if there is a flood, researchers would have perhaps five hours or more to warn people downstream, Stevenson noted.

Bardarbunga may be one for the history books, but it's definitely not the worst in Iceland's history. That would probably be the 1783-1784 Laki eruption, which killed 60 percent of Iceland's livestock and about 20 percent of its people. Compared to that, Bardarbunga is "10 times smaller in terms of eruption rate, fire fountain height, and gas content," Stevenson said.

But even so, "it's pretty amazing," he said.

This picture shows magma along a long fissure in a lava field north of the Vatnajokull glacier, which covers part of Bardarbunga volcano system, on Aug. 29, 2014. Reuters