Despite grounding 100,000 flights across Europe, battering a beleaguered airline industry, stranding hundreds of thousands of travellers, disrupting schools and businesses, and giving homes under flight paths their first peace and quiet in decades, the current volcano eruption may be only a teaser of chaos to come.
A far bigger Icelandic volcano, Katla, is tipped to erupt in the coming months, potentially causing much more savage and sustained disruption to industry and society.
Eyjafjallajokull erupted on April 14, forcing European governments to impose a no-fly zone. Each time Eyjafjallajokull has erupted in the past 2,000 years – in 920, in 1612 and between 1821 and 1823 – Katla has exploded within six months.
“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Katla erupted within the next year, but how much it affects Britain and northern Europe depends on what happens with the winds at the time,” volcanologist Bill McGuire told The Independent.
Professor McGuire, who sits on the Government’s Cobra emergency committee, pointed out that Katla was 10 times bigger than Eyjafjallajokull.
It also has a much bigger ice cap, and it is the mixture of melting cold water and lava that causes explosions and for ash to shoot to high altitudes.
Professor McGuire, a professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, suggested airlines should draw up contingency plans for coping with Katla, which he said had been known about for a long time – but added that there was probably not much that could be done.
His concern was shared by Jon Davidson, a professor of Earth sciences at Durham University, who remarked that because Katla has invariably exploded into life after Eyjafjallajokull has done so, the aviation industry should be “less surprised” by its potential impact.
Iceland’s President, Olafur Grimsson, indicated Europe and the world, would have to wake up to the risk posed by Katla. He told the BBC’s Newsnight: “Unfortunately, what we have seen in the past few years could only be a beginning of an experience which might be repeated throughout the 21st century.
“Because the history of these volcanoes in my country shows that they will erupt regularly, and the time for Katla to erupt is coming close. It’s much bigger. What we have seen now is a small rehearsal of what would happen, I don’t say if, but when Katla will erupt, because it usually erupts [on a large scale] every century and the last [major] one was in 1918.”
The President said Iceland had been “waiting for that eruption” for some years, and had made preparations for rescue and emergency services.
“So I think it is high time for European governments and airline authorities across the globe to start planning for the eventual Katla eruption,” he added.