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Volcanoes unpredictable

The year of the earthquake has suddenly become the year of the volcano. The eruption in Iceland is not large as volcanoes go, but the cloud over Europe has shed light on the awkward overlay of human commerce and a hot, churning, unpredictable Earth.

world Updated: Apr 22, 2010 01:07 IST
Joel Achenbach

The year of the earthquake has suddenly become the year of the volcano.

The eruption in Iceland is not large as volcanoes go, but the cloud over Europe has shed light on the awkward overlay of human commerce and a hot, churning, unpredictable Earth.

It raises the question of what governments can do to prepare for — and adapt to — wild-card geological events that not only affect airliners but can also alter the planet’s climate for years.

Events in recent days have demonstrated the inherent uncertainties of volcano science. Although volcanoes are far more predictable than earthquakes, they remain quirky, with each one having its own personality.

Scientists rely primarily on past performance to predict future activity for any given location. The Iceland volcano initially produced little ash, but a new vent opened beneath a glacier and the situation turned explosive. What precisely happened is still being researched.

Chris Waythomas, a USGS volcanologist in Alaska, said it is easy to detect when a volcano is active but much harder to know what it will ultimately do, how long an eruption will continue and how big it will be. “There are surprises. Mount St. Helens, 1980: No one expected a major flank collapse to occur, he said.” That collapse depressurised the magma chamber below and caused the mountain to explode laterally.

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