Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for September, 2014

Living with a volcanic eruption

Due to the Holuhraun volcanic eruption in Iceland, the homepage of the Icelandic Met Office has volcanic information at the top of its pages. Today (Friday 19 September 2014) the information reads as follows:

Warning: Fissure eruption in Holuhraun (north of Vatnajökull).
Warning: Gas pollution is expected in the north central highlands and northwest to Skagafjorður-area and Hunafloi-bay. Tomorrow (Friday) gas pollution is expected in N-Iceland from Strandir to Eyjafjorður-area, in north central highlands and in E-Iceland from Hornafjorður-bay north to Egilsstadir. A larger pollution area cannot be ruled out. Valid until midnight tomorrow, Friday.

The gas pollution is sulphur dioxide, SO2, and appears in the form of a bluish haze. Its concentration depends on wind direction and has been quite high at times, though luckily not for long periods at a time (so far at least). It was first noticed about 10 days ago, when the sulphur smell was detected as far away as Norway and Sweden. RUV, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, publishes new and videos of the eruption on its volcano website.

No one knows how long this eruption will last, but it could be a long time – even 10 years. Luckily for air travellers, volcanic ash production is negligible, though this might change if the eruption moves to underneath the glacier.

Though there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, I’m a little concerned about the SO2 if it continues being released for a long time. In the air, it forms sulphuric acid, which has caused devastating problems in the past, see here for instance, while scientists here look at the possible consequences of a Laki-type eruption.

Here is an excerpt from the above website:

When Laki sprang to life on June 8, 1783, it generated a sulfuric acid haze that dispersed over Iceland, France, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, and other countries. It killed a fifth of Iceland’s population and three-quarters of the island’s livestock. It also destroyed crops, withered vegetation, and sowed human disease and death in several Northern European nations. During the eight months that Laki erupted, the volcano blasted 122 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere – seven times more than did the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines and approximately 50 to 100 times more per day than Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano released in 2010.

SO2 is also a precursor of acid rain.

At the moment, no one seems to be talking publicly about possible long-term effects of SO2 but instead health warnings are issued such as “Asthma sufferers should stay inside” if the concentration is high. Concern has been voiced over the lack of monitoring equipment, so that at the moment the concentration might be high in some places but no one knows about it as it’s not being monitored everywhere. More monitors will be set up, but it looks like they will need to be set up all over the country – an SO2 haze was even detected in Reykjavik last weekend.

Does anyone want an article about this?