Iceland's Katla Volcano Is Not About to Erupt: Scientist Criticizes 'Shameful, Scaremongering' Article

Over the weekend, a stream of articles claiming that one of Iceland's largest active volcanoes was about to erupt were published. According to reports, the "highly hazardous" Katla volcano was releasing a huge amount of carbon dioxide, a clear indication that the magma chamber was filling up, and this was evidence of an imminent, massive eruption.

Those news stories were not true.

The reports were prompted by an article published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, in which Evgenia Ilyinskaya, from the U.K.'s University of Leeds, and her colleagues assessed the amount of CO2 being released from Katla. Findings showed emissions were extremely high—so much so that it, and other volcanoes like it, should be considered in the wider picture of CO2 emissions globally.

This is the "plain language summary" from the study:

We discovered that Katla volcano in Iceland is a globally important source of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in spite of being previously assumed to be a minor gas emitter. Volcanoes are a key natural source of atmospheric CO2 but estimates of the total global amount of CO2 that volcanoes emit are based on only a small number of active volcanoes. Very few volcanoes which are covered by glacial ice have been measured for gas emissions, probably because they tend to be difficult to access and often do not have obvious degassing vents. Through high‐precision airborne measurements and atmospheric dispersion modelling, we show that Katla, a highly hazardous subglacial volcano which last erupted 100 years ago, is one of the largest volcanic sources of CO2 on Earth, releasing up to five percent of total global volcanic emissions. This is significant in a context of a growing awareness that natural CO2 sources have to be more accurately quantified in climate assessments and we recommend urgent investigations of other subglacial volcanoes world‐wide.

A farm in Vik, a village at the base of Iceland's Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which is part of the ice cap sealing the Katla volcano. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

The study was misinterpreted in an article in the Sunday Times. The newspaper claimed the findings suggested that the volcano was "about to erupt" and that such an eruption would dwarf the one at Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. The ash plume from that volcano caused global chaos, grounding flights for weeks.

The Katla story was picked up by news outlets worldwide, and soon afterward Ilyinskaya sent out a string of tweets criticizing the "scaremongering" articles that misinformed readers.

"Incredibly disappointing to see that @thesundaytimes have gone down the route of trashy tabloids," Ilyinskaya wrote. "This article misinforms their readers and undermines me as a scientist and a specialist in my field. Shameful job.

"Naming and shaming this scaremongering article. I said explicitly that we are in no position to say whether or not #Katla #volcano is ready to erupt; and that air traffic disruption in case of an #eruption is unlikely to be as serious as in 2010. You are lying to your readers.

"The real shame here is that the true version of the story was already very important and interesting in itself. We discovered something totally unexpected and mind-blowing about #Katla #volcano AND the discovery may help forecast its eruptions better in the future," Ilyinskaya said.

The full thread can be read here.

Scientists do not know when Katla will erupt next, as they cannot predict when volcanoes will erupt. Katla last erupted in 1918.

The coast near the town of Vik, in southern Iceland. The town is situated directly south of Katla volcano. Reuters

David Pyle, professor of earth sciences at the University of Oxford, said the case highlighted the problems faced by scientists wishing to share their research, and newspapers looking to attract readers. "In this example, the news story ran under a headline suggesting that a giant volcano was about to erupt. This was patently not the story presented in the scientific paper," he told Newsweek.

Pyle explained that in the study, the authors took airborne measurements of CO2 from Katla and found points where concentrations were higher than the background levels expected. After modeling sources of those emissions, they concluded the volcano was leaking a lot of CO2, so much that it would rank in the top three worldwide.

"Of course, the rate of volcanic carbon dioxide emission is not very well known; few have been measured systematically, and just a handful of volcanoes have been measured during airborne surveys of this kind," Pyle said.

"Since this carbon dioxide is likely to be escaping from a deep source of magma beneath the volcano, it is possible to estimate very roughly how much molten rock may exist at depth. But since these measurements are only snapshots of the system, and there are no older measurements for comparison, it is simply not possible to know whether Katla is always emitting at this rate or not.

"Is Katla about to erupt? There is no suggestion from the measurements, or in the paper, that Katla is any way close to erupting. Observations of earthquakes and ground deformation show that Katla had a little episode of unrest in 2011 but has been quiet since. On the other hand, it is one of Iceland's more active volcanoes and has erupted one to three times a century for the past thousand years. So it will erupt again, but as yet there is no indication of when," Pyle said.

Pete Rowley, a volcanologist with the University of Hull, said the Times article was "incredibly disappointing. Not only does it appear to have taken quotes from Dr. Ilyinskaya totally out of context, it appears to have modified them in such a way as to directly contradict the intended meaning of her communication with them," he told Newsweek.

"Articles like this Times one can be incredibly damaging. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time about hazards like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes is hard enough without having people misled about them.

"As scientists, we rely on journalists to help us communicate our findings to the public in a way that is both useful and timely. The more articles which push these 'imminent disaster' stories which ignore the reality in favor of page views only undermines people's willingness to take warnings seriously when they are issued for real," said Rowley.