Sulphur dioxide from Iceland volcano eruption has reached the UK

Lava erupting from a fissure near Grindavik, Iceland, on 20 March

Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The latest eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland have emitted a huge plume of sulphur dioxide (SO2) that is currently drifting across Europe. Fortunately, it isn’t expected to have any significant effect on weather or health.

The SO2 plume moved across Ireland and the UK towards Scandinavia on 20 March, the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service said today. It will reach the Baltic states, Poland and Russia on Friday.

In Iceland, one person working at the Blue Lagoon resort on the Reykjanes Peninsula was admitted to hospital on 20 March after being exposed to high levels of SO2 gas. However, the plume moving over Europe is well above ground level and won’t affect the quality of the air below.

“The plume is at a higher altitude,” says Mark Parrington at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

In November of last year, a massive crack 15 kilometres long and several kilometres deep formed under part of the Reykjanes peninsula. Magma that had accumulated deeper down then poured into it at the fastest rate ever recorded.

On 18 December, lava began erupting along part of this crack. There have now been four eruptions along it, with the latest and largest yet starting on 17 March.

“The plume of SO2 across Europe was created during the initial phase [of the latest eruption],” says Freysteinn Sigmundsson at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík.

The flow rate has slowed since the initial phase, says Freysteinn, but the eruption continues as of the afternoon of 21 March. “This eruption is different,” he says. “It is now longer than the previous ones.”

Some volcanic eruptions emit enough SO2 to affect the global climate, but the Iceland eruption isn’t on anything like this scale. The plume will be too short-lived to affect the weather, says Parrington.

The Eyjafjallajökull eruptions in 2010 caused major disruption to air traffic over Europe for a week or so, but the Reykjanes eruptions are of a different kind and aren’t expected to produce large quantities of ash.



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