Houston-area Volcano Expert Offers Insight

UH Geoscientist Jonathan Snow Available to Discuss Current, Future Eruptions

The University of Houston’s resident volcanologist has much insight to offer regarding the recent eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.  He can discuss why it happened, how long it might last and whether the climate and animals will be affected.  Jon Snow

With 18 other active volcanoes around the world that have already erupted 39 times this year alone, this one is not the biggest.  Jonathan Snow, associate professor of isotope geochemistry, says larger volcanoes than this go off every year all over the world.  The attention garnered by this one is likely due to the fact that this eruption is sending ash over northern Europe, disrupting European air traffic.  Eyjafjallajökull has been giving seismic signals since March that it was going to become active after almost 200 years of dormancy. 

“Remember, this is a tiny eruption, and the only reason we’re even talking about it is because the wind is taking the ash plume over Europe at exactly the height that airliners fly,” Snow says.  “It’s the disruption to the airline industry that has everybody upset.” 

As for any major effects, Snow predicts there will only be minor regional climate effects.  The sulfur dioxide gas that the volcano is putting out might cause some acid rain locally in Europe, and the ash-induced haze may linger for a while over Europe, causing them a cooler summer than usual, as well as creating some particularly beautiful sunsets.  And since most of the ash and sulfur gas that came from the Icelandic volcano reached 10,000 to 15,000 feet into the atmosphere, he doesn’t think there will be much affect on animals, if any, since birds don’t fly that high. 

On the matter of global warming, Snow says there are some indications that glacial melting triggers eruptions, which melt the glaciers still further, causing a feedback effect.  The main cause, he says, is that Iceland is on a major plate boundary where volcanoes are actively forming new ocean crust.  In addition, it’s a “hot spot,” – the only one on such a spreading zone – that causes still more volcanism, even triggering the nearby Katla volcano in Iceland. 

“Most eruptions on Iceland go from a more explosive to a more effusive, or lava outpouring, stage as the magma chamber degases.  This is already occurring for this eruption,” he says.  “Once the magma chamber refills, over the course of the next weeks, there may be more eruptions.  Historically, eruptions at Eyjafjallajökull have been followed by eruptions at its much larger neighbor Katla.” 

No stranger to this subject, Snow has been studying the volcanoes at the top of Earth since he was a graduate student, having pulled some of the oldest rocks on the planet from the sea floor near Iceland. 


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