Watching Bardarbunga

volcano08:21 Thursday 28th August 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: A Cambridgeshire scientist is preparing to head out to Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano, which it’s thought could be on the point of erupting. If it does, the resulting ash cloud would disrupt air traffic in a similar way to what happened after the last big Icelandic eruption in 2010. People were stranded all over Europe because they couldn’t catch their flights. Professor Simon Redfern from the Department of Earth Science at the University of Cambridge is part of a team monitoring the situation after several earthquakes in the past few days, and he joins me now. Is it going to blow, Simon?
SIMON REDFERN: Well, the trouble with earthquakes is we don’t really know.
SIMON REDFERN: It’s showing all the signs.
DOTTY MCLEOD: What are the signs?

SIMON REDFERN: There’s huge amounts of seismicity, huge numbers of earthquakes, so up to a thousand, over a thousand earthquakes a day that are being measured around the volcanos and the flanks of the volcano there. And that’s been the case for the last sixteen days or so. So people have been aware that something’s going on there. And the team from Cambridge University have been doing research in this area for the last eight years, and they go out every year to look at their instruments. And this year they went out, they went out into a storm of seismicity. So the team is led by Bob White. He’s got five students who are on the ground there, and their seismometers have actually been used by the Iceland Met. Office, and the Iceland Met. Office can now collect date in real time on what’s going on beneath the ground. And we can see molten rock moving around underneath the ground, through these instruments.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Creeping around.
DOTTY MCLEOD: It’s called .. am I saying it right? Bardarbunga.
SIMON REDFERN: Bardarbunga. Yes.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Bardarbunga. It’s easier than the last one.
SIMON REDFERN: It is easier than the last one. Don’t ask me about that one.
SIMON REDFERN: So the problem with Bardarbunga, like the 2010 eruption, Bardarbunga is beneath an ice sheet. So if Bardarbunga did erupt, the magma would enter the bottom of the glacier. And it’s rather like water getting into a steel furnace. There’d be a huge explosion. So that’s what causes the explosion, it’s the steam interacting with the magma to make it explosive. Otherwise, if it just erupts outside of the glacial region, it’s likely to be quite safe. One option is that it doesn’t erupt at all, the magma that we’re measuring, which is at the moment about five kilometres down, doesn’t actually reach the surface.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And where does it go?
SIMON REDFERN: It could just freeze. So the reason that Iceland has so much volcanic activity is that it’s part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is where America is moving away from Europe. So as Europe and America move away on the tectonic plates, you have to put extra material up in the middle.
SIMON REDFERN: And Iceland is where the stuff in the middle is visible above sea level. So it’s just filling in the gap as it were, as the plates move away.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And you’re actually going out to Iceland.
SIMON REDFERN: So we’ve got people there at the moment from the Department of Earth Sciences, colleagues who are there looking at both the rocks, the vulcanology, but also at the earthquakes. So there must be about in the order of ten people there right now. Colleagues just leaving today, two more of us are going out on Sunday. And yes, it’s obviously, for an earth scientist, it’s a very exciting time. But also worrying, because of his uncertainty about exactly how things will happen.
DOTTY MCLEOD: When you pack for a trip to Iceland, what do you take?
SIMON REDFERN: Well it’s similar to going to the Highlands of Scotland at this time of year. If there’s a north wind, it’s quite chilly, so you need some warm clothes. We’re staying in mountain huts, so you need somewhere to sleep, and we’ll get food and stuff together when we get there. But there’s obviously safety equipment. You need to be in radio contact with the police twice a day, because we’re in very remote areas.
SIMON REDFERN: So the main safety equipment is communication.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And where does the money for this kind of research come from?
SIMON REDFERN: So various funds for the research, but principally the funding for the project that Bob White is leading comes from the UK’s Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council. And they’ve been funding a series of research projects, because of the interest scientifically in understanding how volcanos work. So as we gather this information, this is unprecedented information this time around, we’re getting more and more. We’re building models of how volcanos erupt, which helps the ability to predict exactly how things happen.
DOTTY MCLEOD: But you still don’t exactly know when it’s going to go boom? Just like that.
SIMON REDFERN: Yes. It is rather like predicting the weather.
SIMON REDFERN: There’s inherent uncertainty in the whole system. But you end up with a series of potential risks. So for example the Iceland Met. Office and the Icelandic earth scientists who are used to doing this and end up very much involved in earthquake and volcano prediction will put out for example a red alert or an orange alert for air traffic. So Bardarbunga at the moment is on orange alert, which means it might erupt. About twelve days ago it moved on to a red alert for a brief period, because they thought there was an eruption happening. And in fact news overnight at the moment suggests that there might be more evidence of eruption beneath Bardarbunga today, inasmuch as there’s evidence of the ice melting above the volcano.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well Simon, thank you for coming in this morning. That’s Professor Simon Redfern, who’s heading out to Iceland himself. He is from the Department of Earth Science at the University of Cambridge, off the meet Bardarbunga, and to see whether or not she might be erupting.