ND Expert: Volcano researcher sees potential for more eruptions

by William G. Gilroy


Even as some European airports reopened yesterday nearly a week after Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano started erupting violently, scientists cast a wary eye on possible future eruptions from the volcano that threatens to send another ash cloud spouting into the air.

There is ample reason for continuing vigilance according to Antonio Simonetti, a research associate professor of civil engineering and geological sciences at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in deciphering the geochemical signature and magmatic evolution of volcanic lavas.

“There is no way to know how long the volcanic activity on Eyjafjallajokull and the surrounding region will last and it could continue to erupt anywhere from a few days to a few months,” Simonetti said.

When the volcano began releasing ash and lava in December 1821, it continued to do so until January 1823.

Even more significant, according to Simonetti, is the potential that Eyjafjallajokull’s activity could trigger, or be accompanied by, an even more devastating eruption at the nearby Katla volcano, located 20 kilometers to the east.

“It’s hard to say right now what Katla might do,” Simonetti said. “History shows whenever Eyjafjallajokull erupts, Katla follows. Katla typically explodes every 40 to 80 years and its last eruption was in 1918, so it’s overdue. A Katla eruption could be anywhere from 10 to 100 times stronger than Eyjafjallajokull and could wreak havoc with air travel, trade, agriculture and seasonal weather patterns.”

Simonetti notes that although volcanologists are closely monitoring Katla with seismic equipment and other devices, volcanic eruptions, like earthquakes, are notoriously hard to predict.
What is easier to predict is that with land at a premium and rich, fertile volcanic soil available, volcanic eruptions will become an increasing problem. Simonetti points out that the area once occupied by the city of Pompeii, which was destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is now reinhabited.

“We’ve always been prone to volcanic activity and eruptions, but they are becoming more of an issue because we’re encroaching more on Mother Nature,” he said.

Simonetti studies the geochemistry of extinct volcanoes with an eye toward understanding how the magmatic activity evolved. His research focuses on investigating volcanic centers located in continental rift regions, such as the East African Rift Valley. In particular, one volcano, “Oldoinyo Lengaie,” located in Tanzania, is the world’s only active carbonatite volcano (dominated by the extrusion of carbonate lavas). The majority of Earth’s volcanoes, including those in Iceland, erupt silica-based lavas.

Contact: Antonio Simonetti, research associate professor, civil engineering and geological sciences, 574-631-6710, simonetti.3@nd.edu