How Iceland's Bardarbunga Volcano Can Help Forecast Future Eruptions

Because finding lava bubbling up under your house is not a fun surprise

Icelandic Lava Flow

A close-up night view of the lava flow and massive plumes. Holuhraun Fissure, near the Bardarbunga Volcano, Iceland. Sept. 2, 2014. Holuhraun is a lava field created by fissure eruptions in the Icelandic Highlands. August 29, 2014, a fissure eruption occurred in Holuhraun at the northern end of a magma intrusion which had moved progressively north, from the Bardarbunga volcano. Bardarbunga is a subglacial stratovolcano located under the ice cap of Vatnajokull glacier within the Vatnajokull National Park situated about 15 km (9.3mi) from the Holuhraun lava field.Arctic-Images/Corbis

Since August, Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano has been spewing thousands of cubic feet of magma per second, from a fissure 28 miles (45 kilometers) from the central caldera. The thing about a volcano, says University of Cambridge geophysicist Robert White, is that “you can live 45 kilometers away, and molten rock might still pop up under your house.”

That's obviously a grave concern but far from the greatest one. Bárðarbunga is blanketed by Europe's largest (by volume) ice cap. If a vent opens under the cap, rapid ice melt could trigger devastating floods, and ash plumes miles high could ground air traffic across Europe, like the Eyjafjallajökull eruption did in 2010. As it stands, science still can't predict any of these scenarios, but Bárðarbunga could help. Prior to the eruption, White and his team had been tracking seismic activity in the area, namely the cracks caused by magma as it flowed beneath and through the crust. Armed with a true before-and-after data set, scientists may be able to better anticipate future eruptions. "That's going to be helpful for deciding when you have to move people away from an area," White says.

To get some idea of what happens when lava and ice meet, click the video below.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Popular Science, under the title "A Blast To Better Predict Disaster".