Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Iceland's volcano finally erupts — but there's a bigger eruption in Papua New Guinea

A photo of the eruption of Mount Tavurvur in Papua New Guinea taken August 28, 2014. Sam Bolitho/Kokopo/LilyPNG

It's an exciting time for volcano-watchers — and an unnerving time for anyone who lives near a rumbling volcano.

Over the past day, two large volcanoes have erupted: Iceland's Bárðarbunga and Papua New Guinea's large Rabaul volcano.

The Icelandic volcano gets most of the attention — but that's been a brief, largely harmless eruption so far. Meanwhile, the eruption in Papua New Guinea is far more explosive and has the potential to do more damage to nearby population centers. Here's a rundown and some photos:

Iceland's Bárðarbunga finally erupts — for a brief while

On the night of Thursday, August 28, Iceland's Bárðarbunga volcanic system finally started erupting, as lava emerged from a fissure in the Holuhraun lava field. The eruption came after weeks of earthquakes in the region.

The eruption only lasted about four hours and was finished by around 2:40 am Iceland time, but webcam monitors picked some of the action in the dark. The screengrab below was snagged by volcano expert Erik Klemetti (whose blog is very much worth reading):

bardarbunga eruption 8/28

The eruption between Barðarbunga and Askja in Iceland, seen on the Mila.us Bárðarbunga 2 webcam at 8:45 PM EDT August 28, 2014. Screen capture of Mila.is webcam. (Via Erik Klemetti)

Here's a photo of the 0.6-kilometer-long fissure in the morning taken by scientists on an overflight. There's still gas coming out of the ground, but no lava:

Bardarbunga morning after

(The National Commissioner Of The Icelandic Police, Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management)

So far, this eruption hasn't been much of a danger to anyone. This wasn't a big explosive event — it was a fissure eruption, in which lava essentially flows up through vents in the ground spread out over a larger area. The eruption didn't spew ash into the atmosphere and didn't disrupt flights. And it's in a relatively remote area of Iceland.

By Friday morning, the Icelandic Meteorological Office had put Bárðarbunga on "orange" alert and the nearby Askja volcano on "yellow" alert. Neither are erupting, but Icelandic scientists are watching the volcanoes closely, especially since earthquakes continue to rumble — a sign that magma is on the move.

There are a few possible concerns here with a bigger eruption: An explosive event could throw lots of fine ash up into the atmosphere and disrupt flights around the northern Atlantic. Alternatively, an eruption that occurs under the massive Dyngjujökull glacier could melt lots of ice and lead to flooding in the region. So far, however, the impacts have been minimal.

Papua New Guinea's Rabaul volcano has a huge eruption

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Papua New Guinea, the large Rabaul volcano began erupting on August 29, with smoke and ash spewing out of Mount Tavurvur on East New Britain Island.

Satellite imagery shows that the plume reached 18 kilometers into the air, and the pictures so far have been impressive. Here are a few from Hubert Namani on Twitter:

And a few more:

You can find a more extensive photo gallery of the eruption here.

The Rabaul volcano is one of the most active in Papua New Guinea, and has the potential to cause considerably more damage — particularly to the nearby town of Rabaul, with some 4,000 people. The area near the eruption has already been evacuated, and other residents have been warned to stay indoors.

Back in 1994, an eruption nearly destroyed Rabaul altogether, forcing residents to flee. And a previous eruption in 1937 killed 500 people.

In the meantime, the ash churned up by the current eruption may disrupt flights in the area — Australia's Qantas airlines is already rerouting some of its planes. And the volcanic ash has been devastating crops and gardens when it lands.

As Klemetti points out on Twitter, "Rabaul is a caldera [with] much more of a history of violent, explosive eruptions. Not saying it will be bad, but hazard threat is much higher." You can read his informative 2008 profile of Rabaul here.

Further reading

There are plenty of excellent sources on Twitter to follow all the volcano action. Erik Klemetti and Ben Edwards are both volcano experts worth following. Journalist Alexandra Witze has been covering volcanoes for a long time. And Gisli Olafsson has had some of the best up-to-the-minute updates on Iceland's volcanic activity.

Also, here's a list of all the other active volcanoes that are erupting right now. (Many of the eruptions are small or remote, but they still count.)

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