A huge ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano caused air travel chaos across Europe and beyond yesterday, leaving hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded Image Credit: Reuters/Gulf News

Oslo: 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 media. 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.


"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 per cent of Iceland's biggest ice cap, Vatnajokull, has melted since 1890 and the land nearby was rising about 25 millimetres a year, bringing shifts in geological stresses.

They estimated that the thaw had led to the formation of 1.4 cubic km 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 UN climate panel says that global warming will cause more floods, droughts and rising seas.

Meanwhile, US commanders have suspended medical evacuations of wounded soldiers to a military hospital in Germany due to the volcanic ash clouding European skies, the Pentagon said.

Soldiers seriously wounded in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are usually flown to Ramstein Air Base in Germany to be treated at the nearby Landstuhl medical center, the largest American military hospital outside the US.

But the volcano in Iceland has spewed clouds of ash over Europe, grounding thousands flights in the continent's biggest air travel shutdown since the Second World War.

The US medical flights will instead head to Andrews Air Force base outside Washington, after flying across southern Europe — which was still clear of ash, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters. "So we're making adjustments as necessary," he said, adding there had been no delays in medical evacuations. The military planes would either refuel in mid-air or at US bases in Italy, officials said.

Although the American military had diverted flights around the ash cloud, the volcano had not affected operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, Whitman said.

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