Ice cap thaw may awaken Icelandic volcanoes

OSLO Fri Apr 16, 2010 7:06pm EDT

An aerial handout photo from the Icelandic Coast Guard shows melting ice caused by a volcanic eruption at Eyjafjalla Glacier in southern Iceland April 14, 2010. The volcanic eruption on Wednesday partially melted a glacier, setting off a major flood that threatened to damage roads and bridges and forcing hundreds to evacuate from a thinly populated area. Picture taken April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Icelandic Coast Guard/Arni Saeberg/Handout

An aerial handout photo from the Icelandic Coast Guard shows melting ice caused by a volcanic eruption at Eyjafjalla Glacier in southern Iceland April 14, 2010. The volcanic eruption on Wednesday partially melted a glacier, setting off a major flood that threatened to damage roads and bridges and forcing hundreds to evacuate from a thinly populated area. Picture taken April 14, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Icelandic Coast Guard/Arni Saeberg/Handout

OSLO (Reuters) - A thaw of Iceland's ice caps in coming decades caused by climate change may trigger more volcanic eruptions by removing a vast weight and freeing magma from deep below ground, scientists said on Friday.

They said there was no sign that the current eruption from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier that has paralysed flights over northern Europe was linked to global warming. The glacier is too small and light to affect local geology.

"Our work suggests that eventually there will be either somewhat larger eruptions or more frequent eruptions in Iceland in coming decades," said Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a vulcanologist at the University of Iceland.

"Global warming melts ice and this can influence magmatic systems," he told Reuters. The end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago coincided with a surge in volcanic activity in Iceland, apparently because huge ice caps thinned and the land rose.

"We believe the reduction of ice has not been important in triggering this latest eruption," he said of Eyjafjallajokull. "The eruption is happening under a relatively small ice cap."

Carolina Pagli, a geophysicist at the University of Leeds in England, said there were risks that climate change could also trigger volcanic eruptions or earthquakes in places such as Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the Aleutian islands of Alaska or Patagonia in South America.

MAGMA

"The effects would be biggest with ice-capped volcanoes," she said. "If you remove a load that is big enough you will also have an effect at depths on magma production."

She and Sigmundsson wrote a 2008 paper in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters about possible links between global warming and Icelandic volcanoes.

That report said that about 10 percent of Iceland's biggest ice cap, Vatnajokull, has melted since 1890 and the land nearby was rising about 25 millimetres (0.98 inch) a year, bringing shifts in geological stresses.

They estimated that the thaw had led to the formation of 1.4 cubic km (0.3 cubic mile) of magma deep below ground over the past century.

At high pressures such as under an ice cap, they reckon that rocks cannot expand to turn into liquid magma even if they are hot enough. "As the ice melts the rock can melt because the pressure decreases," she said.

Sigmundsson said that monitoring of the Vatnajokull volcano since 2008 suggested that the 2008 estimate for magma generation was "probably a minimum estimate. It can be somewhat larger."

He said that melting ice seemed the main way in which climate change, blamed mainly on use of fossil fuels, could have knock-on effects on geology. The U.N. climate panel says that global warming will cause more floods, droughts and rising seas.

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