ORAEFI, Iceland – At the summit of one of‘s most dangerous volcanoes, a 72-foot depression in the snow is the only visible sign of an alarming development.
The Oraefajokull volcano, dormant since its last eruption in 1727-1728, has seen a recent increase in seismic activity and geothermal water leakage that has worried scientists. With the snow hole on Iceland’s highest peak deepening 18 inches each day, authorities have raised the volcano’s alert safety code to yellow.
Experts at Iceland’s Meteorological Office have detected 160 earthquakes in the region in the past week alone as they step up their monitoring of the volcano. The earthquakes are mostly small but their sheer number is exceptionally high.
“Oraefajokull is one of the most dangerous volcanos in Iceland. It’s a volcano for which we need to be very careful,” said Sara Barsotti, Coordinator for Volcanic Hazards at the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
What worries scientists the most is the devastating potential impact of an eruption at Oraefajokull.
Located in southeast Iceland about 320 kilometers (200 miles) from the capital, Reykjavik, the volcano lies under the Vatnajokull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe. Its 1362 eruption was the most explosive since the island was populated, even more explosive that the eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that destroyed the city of Pompei.
Adding to the danger is the lack of historical data that could help scientists predict the volcano’s behavior.
“It’s not one of the best-known volcanos,” Barsotti said. “One of the most dangerous things is to have volcanos for which we know that there is potential for big eruptions but with not that much historical data.”
Iceland is home to 32 active volcanic sites, and its history is punctuated with eruptions, some of them catastrophic. The 1783 eruption of Laki spewed a toxic cloud over Europe, killing tens of thousands of people and sparking famine when crops failed. Some historians cite it as a contributing factor to the French Revolution.
Theerupted in April 2010, prompting aviation authorities to close much of Europe’s airspace for five days out of fear that its volcanic ash could damage jet engines. Millions of travelers were stranded by the move.
To remedy the lack of data for…