Tue, Nov 11, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Erupting volcano forces Icelanders to avoid gases


A plane flies over the Bardarbunga volcano spewing lava and smoke in southeast Iceland on Sept. 14.

Photo: AFP

For the kids at the Graenuvellir kindergarten in Husavik, north Iceland, going out to play was not an option.

They were kept inside on Tuesday last week to protect them from sulfur-dioxide gases spewing from the Holuhraun lava field near the Bardarbunga volcano.

The eruption has been going for almost three months and shows no sign of stopping. Red-hot lava has spread 70km2, covering an area larger than Manhattan.

“On regular days the kids go out to play to take in the fresh air, but that’s not really possible or safe under the current conditions,” said Agusta Palsdottir, a manager at the kindergarten, which has 125 children between the ages of one and six.

Icelanders can only wait for nature to run its course as they monitor how gas clouds drift across the island, itself a product of volcanic activity. As descendants of Viking settlers 1,200 years ago, Icelanders have learned to coexist with their volcanoes and to harness their power. Yet some events have proven deadlier than others. In the late 1700s, an eruption triggered a famine that killed 25 percent of Iceland’s population.

“There’s exactly nothing you can do, aside from going inside,” said Kristjan Thor Magnusson, mayor of Nordurthing, the municipality that includes Husavik, a town of 2,200 famous for its whale watching. “People that are more sensitive than others need to avoid physical exertion outside, and try to stay inside and warm up their houses to prevent the gas from getting inside.”

The discomfort of the Graenuvellir kids is also being felt in other towns across Iceland long after the rest of the world stopped fretting over potential disruptions to trans-Atlantic air travel. The island’s Meteorological Office tracks which way the sulfur-dioxide blows daily from the fissure that opened up in the lava field that dates back to an eruption from 1797.

“Which town is affected depends only on weather and winds,” said Bergthora Thorbjarnardottir, a geophysicist at the Met Office.

Bardarbunga, one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, began rumbling on Aug. 16. An eruption then started from a fissure 300m long and has since been moving northeast, away from the ice. An eruption under the ice of the glacier covering the volcano could cause an explosion that would spew ash into the air and disrupt air travel.

At the beginning of the eruption, airlines were put on alert for a potential repeat of 2010, when a volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull ice cap spewed a column of ash 9km into the air. That event shut airspace across Europe for six days, forcing carriers to cancel more than 100,000 flights.

Ash is a danger because the glass-like particles can damage jet engines.

While the current eruption is not the largest on record, it is being compared to the 1783 Lakagigar blowout, which lasted for seven to eight months and eventually covered 600km2 in lava, Thorbjarnardottir said.

“There’s still a chance that the eruption in Holuhraun will pose a risk to international air travel,” she said. “Although there’s quite a bit of activity in the crater of Bardarbunga volcano, the activity does seem to be moving northeast, away from the ice cap.”

The government has issued warnings on the health risks. Exposure to sulfur-dioxide can cause irritation in the eyes, throat and lungs. High levels can lead to breathing difficulties. Children are the most vulnerable, according to the Icelandic Health Directorate.

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