Just when a volcano seems to have settled into a ‘pattern’ it starts misbehaving. Welcome to Katla.
The ‘pattern’ involves 16 recorded Katla eruptions over the past c.830 years, with the last 9 being the most reliable as the actual months in which eruptions took place were recorded. And from this comes the (admittedly rather bold) statement that “Katla erupts twice a century, and the last nine eruptions have all been in the May-November period “. [Not my statement by the way....]
But Katla has not had a sizeable eruption since 1918, and the current repose period of 94 years is the longest known since reliable records began. [Prior to the present one the longest is considered to be the c.80 years between the (approximately dated) eruption of c.1500 and the August 1580 eruption.]
Most geologists who study volcanoes in Iceland and who are aware of Katla’s eruptive history think it’s reasonable to expect that Katla’s next eruption is likely to be similar to her last sizeable basaltic eruption in 1918. But three additional factors may have an unknown influence on the next eruption: (1) Eyjafjallajökull’s eruptions in 2010; (2) probable small subglacial eruptions in 1955, 1999, and 2011; and (3) that an emergent Katla eruption is ‘overdue’ according to a pattern that has persisted since c.1180 AD. (Emergent is a term volcanologists used to describe when a subglacial eruption breaks through the overlying ice and produces a distinct atmospheric eruption plume.)
To add further complexity, it’s worth noting that Katla doesn’t just produce sizeable basaltic eruptions within her ice-covered caldera, so she could surprise us.
Katla’s 7 types of Holocene eruptions
So let’s start by briefly describing listing the main types of Katla eruptions, with a few comments for me. And to keep it simple I’m going to restrict myself to the Holocene (i.e. the period from the end of the last glacial period till the present day, c.9,000 years), as Katla’s older geological history is largely unknown.
1. Small subglacial basaltic eruptions that have not become emergent (i.e. they haven’t pierced the overlying ice). These produce modest glacial outburst floods (jökulhlaups), and at the eruption site the overlying ice collapses to form a distinct depression (cauldron). Examples include the 1955 event, and the July 2011 event. (The word ‘event’ is used deliberately as the lack of prima facie evidence of actual eruptive products means that the heat source required to melt the ice could be geothermal rather than magmatic.)
2. Modest sub-ice to emergent basaltic eruptions. These produce modest-large jökulhlaups, and modest tephra falls. There are many examples in the historic period (i.e. last c.1100 years since the Viking settlement), including 1823, 1860, and 1612.
3. Larger basaltic eruptions that swiftly go emergent. These produce the biggest jökulhlaups, accompanied by thick falls of tephra (especially in proximal areas). Examples include the most recent sizeable eruption in 1918, and the huge eruptions of 1721 and 1755 and 1625. One interesting enigma is how these eruptions produce so much meltwater when so much thermal energy is lost to the atmosphere, especially when there is also no obvious place to store substantial volumes of meltwater at Katla. (A nice problem waiting to be solved.)
4. Modest eruptions of silicic magma. Yes, Katla also erupts silicic magma (dacite to trachydacite, and even some rhyolite). The evidence of these eruptions comes from tephra layers in the surrounding soil profiles, which have the lovely name of SILK layers. If they produced any effusive products (domes, lava flows), these either lie buried beneath the ice or have been removed by erosion. Interestingly, there have been no eruptions of this type since the massive Eldgjá fissure eruption in c.934-938 AD (described under 7 below). At least 12 SILK eruptions are known between c.6600 and 1685 years ago.
5. Large eruptions of silicic magma. Only one is known with certainty and I’m stretching beyond the Holocene to include this as it occurred c.12,000 years ago. It produced a sizeable Plinian to sub-Plinian eruption plume, and more interestingly from the hazard perspective, a number of pyroclastic flows (known as ‘pyroclastic density currents’ to the volcanology pedants). The deposits from the pyroclastic flows form the Sólheimar ignimbrite, which is exposed on the ice-free flanks of the volcano. Parts of this eruption are rhyolitic.
6. Small-modest basaltic eruptions in the fissure swarm associated with Katla (which trends to the northeast). These are neither well studied nor well exposed, largely because they are either covered by younger and more voluminous lavas, and/or because they have been eroded.
7. Large basaltic eruptions in the fissure swarm associated with Katla. Two examples are known – the Hólmsá Fires which erupted c.6600 years ago, and the Eldgjá Fires which erupted c.934-938 AD. An interesting oddity is that unlike the other volcanoes in this part of Iceland, Katla proudly displays a prominent fissure swarm. From this fissure swarm emerged Iceland’s largest historic basalt eruption – Eldgjá. Surprised? You might be because Laki gets all the attention, largely because it happened more recently in 1783-85, and also because its effects on the Icelandic population, and on the population of western Europe, and on the climate, are much better known. The Eldgjá eruption is estimated to have vented c.18 km3 of lava, during an eruption that lasted up to 5 years.
Katla’s 3 eruption groups
Let’s simplify and put these eruption types into three groups:
Group A ( types 1-3) are basalt eruptions within the Katla caldera.
Group B (types 4 and 5) are silicic eruptions (rhyolite-dacite-trachydacite) within the Katla caldera.
Group C (types 6 and 7) are basaltic eruptions in the fissure swarm.
From this we can formulate two simple conclusions:
- From the ice-covered Katla volcano itself (defined by the caldera), two kinds of eruptions are known to occur – basaltic eruptions and silicic eruptions. These vary in volume and explosivity. However, basalt is volumetrically the dominant composition, and is also the most frequent composition erupted.
- The biggest eruptions occur in the fissure swarm to the northeast, and only basaltic eruptions are known from there.
So what’s happened to the so-called ‘predictable’ pattern?
Ah, yes, the curious case of the misbehaving volcano. Well, the Viking settlement of Iceland started in 874 AD and then 60 years later the massive Eldgjá fissure eruption. And being reasonable-to-good recorders of events, especially ones that affected the populated and well-travelled coastal strip, the new settlers and their descendents wrote down some useful information on Katla eruptions – especially the ones that caused floods as these travelled over the well-travelled paths and tracks on the coastal strip on their way to the sea. From this archive comes the ‘predictable’ pattern that “Katla erupts twice a century, and the last nine eruptions have all been in the May-November period “.
This ‘twice a century’ pattern has been surprisingly consistent for the last 16 recorded Katla eruptions over the past c.830 years
However within this persistent pattern there have been some remarkable fluctuations in how much erupted and the repose periods between eruptions. I’ll mention one that really impresses me, which is that two of Katla’s largest eruptions of the past c.1100 years occurred in 1721 and 1755, just 34 years apart. I think it is rather splendid that a volcano can regularly erupt twice a century for eight centuries and only in the May-November period, whilst at the same time having zero correlation between how much is erupted and the repose time between successive eruptions. Think about it.
The ‘breaking’ of the predictable pattern is that Katla has not had a sizeable eruption since 1918. So at time of writing (2012) it’s a repose period of 94 years, which is the longest recorded.
If I was a betting man my prediction is that the next sizeable eruption at Katla would be a basaltic eruption within the Katla caldera, one that is likely to be emergent but may be larger or smaller than the 1918 eruption, and that will occur within the next century. (Not much of a prediction you might say, but it is reasonable and does fit the data.)
But how likely is it that something different will happen?
Well here’s three possible scenarios based on the three groupings above (A-C), along with a few comments.
Possible eruption scenarios
Group A (basalt eruption from Katla). If it can be assumed that the 1955 wholly sub-ice eruption may have eased the pressure on the magma plumbing system (which I admit is speculation on my part), then this, along with another pressure-reducing event in July 2011, may be the reason why Katla’s long-expected sizeable 1918-style eruption is lagging behind schedule.
The July 2011 event also heralded a surprisingly and rapid change in the pattern of seismic unrest in the area, from a high level of unrest in the west (in the Goðabunga area beneath the ice and slightly outwith the caldera rim), to a high level of unrest further east focused within the Katla caldera proper. If this change in the location of seismic unrest is due to a switch in where the heat is rising through the crust (and that’s not certain) then things are heating-up within Katla herself.
Group B (silicic eruption from Katla). How silicic magma is produced and stored within Katla is not well understood. However since the massive Eldgjá eruption there hasn’t been a silicic eruption from Katla, and some scientists consider this to reflect that the magma plumbing system beneath Katla was changed. It’s a fair conclusion, and a high throughput of basalt through a volcano’s plumbing system does not provide optimal conditions for the production and storage of silicic melt. Look at Grímsvötn for example – the most frequently erupting volcano and not a sniff of rhyolite anywhere (at least not that we know of). Anyhow, I would be quite surprised if Katla’s next eruption was a silicic one, but I’d also be quite delighted as it’s my favourite magma.
Group C (basalt eruption in the fissure swarm). If this is of the scale of Eldgjá, it’s the nightmare scenario for Iceland. And it could also be a nightmare for western Europe also (remember Laki 1783). However if it follows a similar pattern (especially eruption rate, duration, meteorological conditions) as Eldgjá then it reduces from nightmare to ‘wow what a big and amazing eruption’. Laki was so damaging to Iceland and western Europe because a lot of magma and associated volatiles (especially S, F, and Cl) were vented in a short time. Eldgjá however, vented more magma with similar volatile content – but over a longer period. This is a rather critical point, because the longer the duration of an eruption the less nasty the effects of the volatiles because additional dispersal time means that their concentrations diminish, especially in distal areas like western Europe. Upwind of such an eruption (and orthogonal to the fissure direction) would be a tourist’s paradise – an opportunity to witness what some volcanologists would call a flood basalt eruption. Call it what you will, it would be truly spectacular. And to watch the development of a massive lava flow field over a few years – a volcanologist’s dream. Anyhow I’d be most surprised if Katla produced a large Eldgjá-sized eruption as its next event, but I’d be equally delighted if I was still around to witness it.
I’ll finish on two Iceland-specific points. The first is that the Icelanders know more about Katla than anybody else, as they have been living with her for c.1100 years and modern-day Icelandic scientists have been monitoring her with considerable intensity and with increasingly sophisticated equipment. And that’s why it was brilliant when Eyjafjallajökull erupted twice in 2010, as all this kit was already in place and teaching us a huge amount about Eyjafjallajökull’s plumbing system. Anyone writing a professional paper on Katla would be well advised to collaborate with the Katla experts in Iceland. This blog entry allows me to synthesise, speculate, and muse in my own individualistic fashion.
It is also worth emphasising that the Icelanders have plans on how to protect people when Katla erupts, and if you wanted evidence of how thorough and good these plans are, just reflect on what happened when Eyjafjallajökull erupted twice in 2010 and how wonderfully effective and safe the evacuation plans were.
The second point is that had this been a peer-reviewed paper I would have cited my sources of information throughout this account. But again it’s a blog so to keep the text flowing I didn’t. Nevertheless I have sifted and synthesised information from a number of sources and a few of these are listed below.
Finally, for the sake of one of my best friends in Iceland I rather hope that Katla erupts sooner rather than later. You see she is also called Katla, and every time there is a news report speculating about when Katla is going to erupt she gets teased by her friends with “come on Katla, stop keeping us guessing – tell us what you are going to do”. Ah the perils of naming children after volcanoes. At least she wasn’t called Eyjafjallajökull or Ok (yes, Ok is a volcano in Iceland).
A useful Icelandic web source is http://earthice.hi.is/katla_bibliography
Peer-reviewed papers written by the scientists listed below (in no particular order) contain reliable and credible information on Katla, and can be accessed via Google Scholar etc. Note that this is not an exhaustive list: Guðrun Larsen; Bergrún Arna Óladóttir; Magnús Túmi Guðmundsson; Helgi Björnsson; Finnur Pálsson; Thorvaldur Thordarson; Brindís Brandsdóttir; Christian Lacasse; Olgeir Sigmarsson