Öræfajökull: Iceland's Giant Frozen Volcano May Be Waking Up as New Ice Cauldron Appears

Part of the Öræfajökull volcano in Iceland. Kristinn Stefánsson/Wikimedia Commons

The Icelandic Meteorological Office, which also monitors volcanic activity, has increased monitoring of the country's largest volcano, Öræfajökull, after reports on Friday that a new ice cauldron had formed, suggesting that something is changing under the Earth's surface in the area.

New satellite images of Öræfajökull volcano shows that a new ice-cauldron has formed within the caldera. It seems that geothermal water has been slowly released from underneath the cauldron to the glacial river of the Kvíárjökull outlet-glacier. pic.twitter.com/LKnJlNxAEf

— Icelandic Meteorological Office - IMO (@Vedurstofan) November 17, 2017

"Although there has been significant geothermal activity in the Öræfajökull caldera, there are no signs of an imminent volcanic eruption," Iceland's weather service wrote in a statement. "There is considerable uncertainty about how the situation will evolve. The Icelandic Meteorological Office continues to monitor the region around-the-clock via seismic observations."

If you'd like to stop skimming over all the letters in the volcano's name, Icelandic geologist Daníel Freyr helpfully explains how to pronounce Öræfajökull:

Ör is pronounced like the "ear" in "early"
æ sounds like "I"
Then you say the "fa" like "wha" from "what"
And then you end with a simple "jökull"

And now its easy



— Daníel Freyr (@danielfj91) November 19, 2017

Öræfajökull is located on the southeast coast of Iceland and is the country's largest and tallest volcano. It's coated in a glacier by the same name. The volcano last erupted in 1727 and 1728 and in 1362, when it caused the largest eruption that made it into Icelandic historical records.

There's a big problem when volcanoes are buried under ice: jökulhlaups. That's the Icelandic term for the large floods that can occur during sudden glacier melts caused by volcanic eruptions. Fortunately, Öræfajökull is pretty remote: Today, just two people live within about six miles of it. (Compare that to Indonesia's Mount Agung, which has 75,000 people living in the same vicinity.)

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The Icelandic Meteorological Office is keeping an eye on Öræfajökull in several different ways, including flying over the volcano with a helicopter. They're particularly monitoring the new ice cauldron, which appears to be about half a mile wide and 10 miles deep. Scientists are also taking electrical conductivity measurements and analyzing gas levels at a glacier located on the southeast side of the volcano. There have been reports of gas smells along the Kvíá river, but the agency says they don't think there's a high risk of sudden flooding right now.

In addition to monitoring the volcano itself, the agency also issued a warning for airlines to flag its increasing unrest. In 2010, an eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, another Icelandic volcano, shut down a huge proportion of Europe's air travel for a week after ash spread across the continent. Ash can interfere with a pilot's visibility and with proper functioning of the engine. The shutdown likely cost the equivalent of more than $1.7 billion, but scientists have since confirmed that Eyjafjallajökull's ash would have been particularly dangerous, validating the cautious approach authorities took.