A Volcano is Not the Last Thing You Need to Worry About: How A Distant Eruption Can Impact the U.S. and the World

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It’s not every day that a volcanic eruption in Iceland can reach out and touch those of us in the United States, but that is certainly the case today (and tomorrow and the next day). The feared eruption of Bardarbunga—Iceland’s second tallest volcano—is thought to be so imminent that the Icelandic government evacuated more than 300 people from the region last week (an early no-fly zone was eased today). Thousands of earthquakes have occurred in just the past week, a sign of increasing magma flow and rising expectation of an eruption.

First, I don’t mean to deflect concern from the eruption potential and what it means to the people of Iceland. I’ve written about the volcanoes and their potential for eruption several times over the past few years, even the Bardarbunga stratovolcano (Katla Volcano, Bardarbunga Volcano) that now has the Icelandic population on high alert. However, a major eruption of this size could be climate-impacting on a global scale and so this becomes an issue for the world.

Bardarbunga is sealed under half a mile of ice. If the eruption happens and the ice seal remains unbroken, the massive release of heat will cause tremendous flooding issues for Iceland. If the eruption is strong enough to break through the ice—and many experts believe it is—then this eruption may rewrite the history books. Bardarbunga does not erupt often, but when it does it is significant. Just yesterday an earthquake within Bardarbunga was classified as the strongest since 1996 and the Gjálp eruption.

Buried under nearly half a mile of ice, the Bardarbunga Volcano is not much to look at from the air. This image shows the Vatnajokull ice cap that has-thus far-kept a catastrophic eruption at bay.

Buried under nearly half a mile of ice, the Bardarbunga Volcano is not much to look at. This image shows the Vatnajokull ice cap that has-thus far-kept a catastrophic eruption at bay.

What does all this mean for the rest of us? It was four years ago that the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, erupted in April, 2010. The explosive eruption caused a week’s worth of air travel disruption, no-fly zones and airspace closures over many areas of Europe and was responsible for billions of dollars in damage. Though the volcano is considered dormant now, the eruption showed how a distant and remote eruption can impact people across the world. The eruption being considered at Bardarbunga could be even more massive. Just this morning, ImpactWeather’s Sr. Meteorologist and geologist, Fred Schmude noted his long-range seasonal forecast which calls for most of this country to be under cooler if not outright colder conditions, as well as wetter conditions, for the winter of 2014-2015. Fred pointed out that, “If Bardarbunga does erupt in an explosive hydro-magmatic fashion, we could be looking at even colder weather.”

Consider a volcanic eruption stronger than Eyjafjallajokull—one that might not just shut down airspace across sections of western Europe, but most of Europe and perhaps even Asia. Consider the time of year in the Northern Hemisphere—the nearing end of summer and cooler weather right around the corner. In this part of Texas, today marks the first day of school and a sure sign that stores are beginning to accept warmer stock in anticipation of winter. What if Fred’s conclusion about a Bardarbunga eruption proves to be correct? We already have a cooler season expected, but could an even cooler one be one distant eruption away?

Would decreased air traffic for a large part of the Northern Hemisphere play havoc with business? Would executives be forced to miss or cancel meetings? Would the cost of air travel rise? Would the cost of a gallon of gasoline go up? Would the world of shoestring supply chains that famously survive on limited stock and fast turn-over based on overnight delivery, unravel? Would that cause the managers of the local Target, Wal-Mart or countless local and global retailers to shrug their shoulders to the demands of their shoppers who can’t buy a heavier jacket? What about the decreased incoming solar radiation, diminished by high altitude volcanic ash? Would solar panels become less effective? Would lakes cool faster allowing seasonal ice-over to occur sooner? Would this inhibit lake and river travel and shipping?

With hurricane season well under way in the tropical Atlantic, many businesses with exposure to tropical threat have incorporated contingency plans and disaster response plans to effectively mitigate damage and manage the crisis. But is the threat isolated to hurricanes? One doesn’t have to look far to see how easily businesses can be disrupted. From yesterday’s Napa earthquake (link), to the recent and ongoing fears of the major Ebola outbreak, to the drought and wildfires of the western United States, to the civil and racial unrest in Ferguson, MO (link) it’s the foolhardy business without the need for a good business continuity plan. Just today, forecast consensus believes that Tropical Storm Cristobal will remain off the U.S. East Coast (good news for those still not fully recovered from Superstorm Sandy!), while all eyes are now on Tropical Disturbance 22 in the north-central Gulf of Mexico moving in the direction of Texas. The likelihood of development is low, but it’s now time to review your well-practiced hurricane response plan, not create one from scratch.

Over the past few years the alarms have been raised often concerning the next Icelandic eruption. Will it happen today? Will it happen tomorrow or next year? No one can know with certainty, yet it will happen someday.

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