Iceland's Volcanic Eruption: More Tourists, Colder US Winter

iceland volcano
Photo: Eyjafjallajökull erupting as onlookers stand by (Christopher Lund, National Geographic)

After lying dormant for almost two centuries, Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull (that's pronounced AY-uh-full-ay-ho-kul) volcano blew its top on March 30 - in the process spurring an evacuation of hundreds, while at the same time, drawing in more than 25,000 tourists from around the world, eager to see the "lavafalls" and fiery belching up close (but not without some danger as reports of tourist rescues are showing).

According to scientists, this could put into motion a chain reaction of geologic activity that might endanger a nearby wildlife preserve, as well as potentially causing Katla, another neighbouring volcano to erupt - which could set off an extreme winter in the United States.
From USA Today:

"When Katla went off in the 1700s, the USA suffered a very cold winter," says Gary Hufford, a scientist with the Alaska Region of the National Weather Service. "To the point, the Mississippi River froze just north of New Orleans and the East Coast, especially New England, had an extremely cold winter.

"Depending on a new eruption, Katla could cause some serious weather changes."

Eyjafjallajokull, the Icelandic volcano that has continued to belch lava, ash and steam since first erupting last weekend, isn't the direct problem. It's Katla, the noisier neighbor, that's the concern. If lava flowing from Eyjafjallajokull melts the glaciers that hold down the top of Katla, then Katla could blow its top, pumping gigantic amounts of ash into the atmosphere.

Scientists say history has proven that whenever the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupts, Katla always follows -- the only question is how soon.

"If it (Eyjafjallajokull) continues to belch, then you worry," says Hufford.

The major determining factors would be the duration of the eruption and at what height the ash is projected into the stratosphere. "When volcanic ash reaches the stratosphere, it remains for a long time," explains Hufford. "The ash becomes a very effective block of the incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the atmosphere's temperatures."

We've seen from the historical record that volcano eruptions have contributed to global cooling (also inspiring some harebrained and dangerous ideas to geoengineer climate cooling), but it remains to be seen if this Icelandic fountain of fire will make the next winter a chillier one.

USA Today
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