Just over a year ago, I was walking in the shadow of one of Iceland’s largest and most unsettled volcanoes. Katla – kettle or cauldron in Icelandic – looms like an upturned bowl of ice over the horizon of southern Iceland. From the southernmost settlement on the island, Vik, you stand on the beach of black volcanic sand (scenes in “Game of Thrones” have been filmed nearby) facing north and you can see the menace of Katla in the crack in the craggy hills that tower over the village. The ice and snow that cover Katla are the same shade of dirty white as the clouds that almost always obscure the sun. There is not much to see in Vik, except for a cute red-roofed church, whose white walls stand out sharply against the green of the hills, and a wool museum. When I stepped out of the bus onto the tarmac of the car park the first sound that hit me was Polish music playing on the radio for the crew of four working on the renovation of the building. Poles are the Vikings of today’s Europe, except less rapey and pillagey and more hard-working.
But for the music it was quiet then, but now perhaps not so much – is Katla above to blow its top off and ground the air traffic all over the northern hemisphere possibly for weeks?
The story was originally published by UK news outlet The Sunday Times and focused on recent airborne measurements taken by Icelandic and British scientists around Katla, a giant volcano in southern Iceland.
The story claimed the measurements concluded that Katla was releasing “huge” amounts of carbon dioxide and was poised to erupt at any moment.
Several scientists weighed in on the findings in the story, including Leeds University volcanologist Evgenia Ilyinskaya.
Dr Ilyinskaya co-authored a report on Katla, published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which found that the volcano was releasing between “12 and 24 kilotons of carbon dioxide every day” — an amount of gas she claims is “huge”.
Dr Ilyinskaya is now claiming fake news.
In a ferocious Twitter thread, Dr Ilyinskaya described the story as “shameful” and called out The Times and other outlets for “lying to your readers” and twisting her words during a 20-minute interview.
“Incredibly disappointing to see that The Sunday Times have gone down the route of trashy tabloids,” she wrote.
“This article misinforms their readers and undermines me as a scientist and a specialist in my field.”
She said she was glad that her study had received interest from the media but regretted that her research was misrepresented and exaggerated.
“I said explicitly that we are in no position to say whether or not Katla volcano is ready to erupt; and that air traffic disruption in case of an eruption is unlikely to be as serious as in 2010,” she wrote.
She also claimed she told the reporter that “air traffic disruption was very unusual and unlikely to happen if Katla erupts”.
“And still The Sunday Times quote me as saying exactly the opposite!”
Still, that’s a lot of “carbon pollution” – between 12,000 and 24,000 tons of CO2 a day just seeping through the cracks in rock and ice. When another volcano, Eyjafjoell, erupted in 2010, its daily carbon dioxide spew was estimated to be between 150,000 and 300,000 tonnes a day, which meant that if Eyjafjoell were a country, it would rank somewhere between 47th and 74th in the world in terms of CO2 emissions. This was offset, however, by the fall in emissions as flights were grounded for days in Europe and North America. While volcanoes produce about 200 million tonnes of CO2 worldwide every year, major eruptions also eject dust and sulphur into the atmosphere which reflect the sunlight and can cause cooling. Studies have also shown that the Eyjafjoell eruption has seeded the ocean around Iceland with iron particles, which increased the blooming of phytoplankton, which as a result in turn absorbed more CO2.
Will Katla blow or not? Maybe, maybe not. But just in case don’t show it Google, where it has 36 reviews – with some people giving it only 1 star. How unkind can you get?
Driving back to Reykjavik, you pass through a little town call Hella. Strangely, considering the rather lunar volcanic landscape, it has nothing to do with hell. While one etymological theory has English hell come from a Scandinavian goddess Hel who presides over the underworld, the consensus seems to be that the origin lies in the old Indo-European word for something hidden or covered (indeed Hella is named after nearby caves). Another huge volcano, Hekla, towers over Hella. Hekla, which has erupted 20 times since the 9th century, is named after a short hooded cloak, but in the Middle Ages it was known as “the gateway to hell”. It blew its top most recently in 2000. Iceland is sitting on fire – which in most cases is a good thing as the island is self-sufficient in renewable energy, including thermal. But once in a while there is a hell of price to pay for this natural bounty.
(All photos Arthur Chrenkoff, except the satellite of course – I’m not that good)