As the co-author of a book about an Icelandic fissure eruption, I couldn’t have been happier when the Bárðarbunga volcano began erupting on 29 August. Especially because so far, it hasn’t caused any serious damage.
That could still change. But so far, the biggest problem with Bárðarbunga has been the air pollution it spewed across eastern Iceland. Which is just one reason the eruption has me thinking back to 1783, and the Laki eruption that is the subject of our recent book. Like Bárðarbunga, Laki ripped the ground open in a long, straight fissure punctuated with fountains of fire. Like Bárdarbunga, it spewed out sulfur dioxide and other choking gases.
The big difference is scale. The Laki eruption persisted for eight months and generated one of the biggest lava flows seen in historical times. Here’s a map showing just how pipsqueak the current eruption (also known as Holuhraun, for the plain where it erupted) is compared to the Laki lava flows. More broadly, Laki sent a toxic gas cloud all the way across the North Atlantic and over continental Europe, where people choked and sickened on it.
So we wait, and watch, and see what Bárðarbunga has in store. In the meanwhile, here are a couple pieces I’ve written about the ongoing eruption: a Last Word on Nothing post that’s heavy on Norse mythology; a Nature explainer on the science of the eruption; and a National Geographic News Q&A about why Icelandic volcanoes can be so fearsome.
UPDATE: In October 2014 I flew to Reykjavik to see if I could see the eruption for myself. Unfortunately, winter had set in and the weather was just too bad for a tourist overflight. I did, however, write a piece for Nature on the sulfur pollution from the eruption, and how it has surprised scientists at almost every turn. You can read that piece here.
UPDATE 2: As of March 2015, the Bárðarbunga eruption has ended. Your Icelandic volcano correspondent is a little sad.