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07 July 2011

Iceland volcano ‘ready to pop’

Reykjavik - One of Iceland's most feared volcanoes looks ready to erupt, with measurements indicating magma movement, Icelandic experts said on Wednesday, raising fears of a new ash cloud halting flights over Europe.

The Hekla volcano is close to the ash-spewing Eyjafjoell, which last year caused the world's biggest airspace shutdown since World War 2, affecting more than 100 000 flights and eight million passengers.

The Iceland Civil Protection Authority told reporters it was closely monitoring the situation.

“The movements around Hekla have been unusual in the last two to three days,” University of Iceland geophysicist Pall Einarsson told reporters.

While this might not necessarily mean an immediate blast, “the volcano is ready to erupt”, he stressed.

“The mountain has been slowly expanding in the last few years because of magma buildup,” he explained.

Another geophysicist, Ari Trausit Gudmundsson, said measurements around Hekla were very “unusual” and the volcano looked ready to blow.

“Something is going on,” he told reporters, stressing though that “if or when the volcano erupts is unclear”.

The volcano, dubbed by Icelanders in the Middle Ages as the “Gateway to Hell”, is one of Iceland's most active, having erupted 20 times over the past millennium, most recently on February 26, 2000.

Hekla, which is not far from Eyjafjoell and has gone off about once a decade over the past 50 years, is known for its extremely varied and hard-to-predict eruptions, with some lasting only a matter of days and others lasting months and even years.

Measuring 1 491m and located about 110km east of Reykjavik, Hekla is so active that scientists estimate about 10 percent of the tephra - the solid matter ejected when a volcano erupts - produced in Iceland over the past millennium, about five cubic kilometres, comes from this one volcano.

Wednesday's news of a possible imminent eruption comes just over a month after the violent eruption at the Grimsvoetn volcano, in the southeast of the country. That eruption subsided after less than a week, having spit out far more ash than Eyjafjoell, but due to more favourable winds for Europe, it caused much less air traffic disruption.

Asked about what kind of disruptions could be expected if Hekla erupts, Gudmundsson said the volcano tends to “produce both ash and lava within the first seconds of an eruption”.

Lava eruptions are far less disruptive to air travel, and “if the next eruption is of the same character (as the previous ones) it is unlikely that it will have any effects on flights in Europe”, he said.

“But of course this depends on the size of the eruption, which is something that is impossible to predict,” he added.

Both of Iceland's latest eruptions provided warning signs several hours before, but Hekla is known for having a very short fuse.

“Hekla never gives you much of a warning,” Einarsson said, pointing out that in 2000, it began rumbling an hour and a half before the outbreak of magma, which “was actually an unusually long warning - in 1970 we only got 25 minutes notice”.

Rongvaldur Olafsson, a project manager at the Icelandic Civil Protection Authority, said no immediate safety precautions were being taken but: “We will watch the mountain and developments very closely.”

A statement said that visitors should exercise caution near the volcano, a popular spot for outdoor activities.

“It is important that people who are going there ask relatives or friends to watch out for media news and let them know if there are any information of a possible eruption,” it said.

After Iceland's last two eruptions, geologists have warned that the country's volcanoes appeared to have entered a more active phase and that more eruptions could be expected, with Hekla believed to be first in line. - Sapa-AFP-IOL