It has been an unusual and dramatic natural event the past few days, but now an uneasy reality is setting in.
Scientists and government officials in Northern Europe and beyond are beginning to worry: How long will the Iceland volcano continue erupting? In Iceland, hundreds of nearby residents have been evacuated. It gave a small indication March 20 of something to come, but this past Wednesday, when the volcano suddenly roared again to life, there were startling chain reactions: "Ice chunks the size of houses tumbled down from a volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier on Thursday, as hot gases melted the ice.
The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in less than a month.
Torrents of water filled with ash and pumice roared down the steep slopes of the volcano."
The U.K. Daily Mail reports a million Britons are stranded in various parts of the world unable to get home due to flight restrictions. Fresh produce and other imported foods are growing scarce at U.K. groceries. Iceland's volcano eruption is now costing airlines around the world an estimated $200 million in revenue per day. Plane engines can be totally disabled by flying in the silica-laden particulate clouds. The ash is beginning to settle in the U.K. The cloud of ash and smoke is now at least 4 miles high and can be seen from outer space and could impact the weather worldwide. In addition the World Health Organization has now issued a warning for people in northern Europe to consider wearing facemasks to avoid breathing the grainy smoke.
"Inhaling silica into your respiratory system can lead to a deadly, chronic lung disease called silicosis that can damage the lungs and heart," Alvarez said. "It also increases the potential of developing lung cancer."
Silicosis is an incurable, irreversible lung disease that progresses even after exposure has ended.
WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said Europeans who venture outside might want to consider a mask. Alvarez agrees this is a good idea, especially for people with lung conditions."
Based on the health histories of other volcanic explosions, such as Mt. St. Helens in the United States, the WHO says the health risk could continue long after the eruptions have stopped.
Icelandic volcanoes have been erupting from deep below ancient glaciers since before the dawn of man. Some of the gaseous clouds and lava flows were so huge they affected Earth's climate. It is believed the "Little Ice Age" (roughly 1700-1900) was especially harsh because of the 8-month-long Laki volcano eruption in Iceland in 1783. "When the Laki volcano erupted in 1783, it caused a cloud of poison gas to drift to Britain, where hundreds died. The smog and ash caused famines in Western Europe. Crop production plunged. The winter of 1784 was one of the coldest in history, with the Mississippi River freezing as far south as New Orleans. The last time there was a major eruption in Iceland, flooding followed within minutes of the hot lava hitting the glaciers, with house-sized boulders tumbling down mountains. The British naturalist Gilbert White and American Ben Franklin wrote in 1783 that "a peculiar haze" hung over Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and America for many weeks. Most of the livestock in Iceland died, along with 25% of the country's population.
"The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers' meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic ... the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun."
"The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789."
It is a primitive, awe-inspiring sight. It is easy to understand why early Icelanders named their volcanoes such things as "Gate to Hell" believing that souls could be pulled down into the molten, moving masses of earth. The problem is, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökulle, even if it stops fairly soon, may trigger an eruption of a nearby, and much larger, "sister" volcano called Katla.
"Both volcanoes erupted in 1612 and 1821-23, but Katla has also gone off on its own many times, most recently in 1918. One of the largest eruptions in Iceland's history, by volume, came in the years 934 to 940 when Katla spewed more than 18 cubic kilometers of lava onto the countryside. The Icelandic Meteorological Office, the Nordic Volcanological Center and other institutions monitor both volcanoes with GPS, seismic and other equipment.
Like Eyjafjallajökull, Katla lies beneath a glacier, and the combination of its larger size and the overlying ice makes it far more dangerous, scientists say. When an erupting volcano melts ice, floods known as jökulhlaups can come pouring out suddenly. Flooding from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption has already caused hundreds of people to evacuate."
Iceland's "Gate to Hell" is re-opening. How much of its ancient history we have to re-live is just as much a force of nature and out of man's control as it has been for centuries.
Jane Jamison is editor of the conservative news/commentary blog, UNCOVERAGE.net.