After 2 weeks of seismic grumbling, Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano is holding scientists—and the aviation industry—in suspense. Buried beneath the island’s giant Vatnajökull glacier, under 100 to 400 meters of ice, the volcano had yet to erupt. But scientists at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) in Reykjavík, seasoned by back-to-back eruptions at Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Grímsvötn in 2011 that produced large ash clouds and caused costly air traffic snarls over northern Europe, are better prepared than before to monitor ash and assess its threat to aircraft.
“One of the criticisms of the 2010 incident was that there were a lot of model forecasts,” but few observations, says Fred Prata, an atmospheric scientist at Nicarnica Aviation in Kjeller, Norway. Airlines thought flights were disrupted unnecessarily and “were a bit critical of the scientists,” Prata says.
In August 2011, at the urging of Iceland’s government, IMO began devoting more resources to volcano hazards. IMO and the University of Iceland are leading a European Union–funded research program, FUTUREVOLC, that has brought new monitoring capabilities. “We have installed new seismic stations, [and] an experimental type of new water chemistry that … can look for chlorine, fluorine, sulfur, and other species indicative of volcanic activity,” says IMO atmospheric volcanologist Melissa Pfeffer. If there’s an explosive eruption, “we have a lot more instrumentation that will go into the field.”