Scientists: Volcano Could Erupt Again

The volcanic eruption that has grounded planes and closed airports throughout Europe appears to be slowing down. But before travelers start rejoicing, Icelandic scientists have a warning: The eruption could start up again any time.

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And we have more bad news for trapped travelers. Icelandic scientists are warning that the eruption that caused so much trouble could start again at any time. NPR's Joe Palca is in Reykjavik and he has this report.

JOE PALCA: Shortly before noon today, people started wandering into the third-floor coffee room in the building housing the Nordic Volcanology Center on the campus of the University of Iceland. The occasion was a chance for the center staff to hear the latest news from the volcano. Shortly after noon, a harried young scientist came running into the room with a laptop computer.

Bjorn Odsen(ph) had just come in from the airport next to the university. He had spent the morning flying over the volcano.

Mr. BJORN ODSEN: I haven't looked at this data so I'm looking at it first time like you. So, if you see something interesting then we'll just stop and look at it.

PALCA: Odsen projected a variety of images he had just collected. While it was clear the volcano was still erupting, it was equally clear that the eruption was smaller than it had been last week. There was some speculation that the hot magma coming from the interior of the earth was now emerging from the volcano's lava. But Odsen's pictures show that's not the case.

Mr. ODSEN: No lava flowing around the edge. It's all fragmented.

PALCA: The pictures also indicated that catastrophic flooding is unlikely for the moment. There is a glacier sitting on top of the volcano. If the water forms a pool behind an ice dam, then when the dam breaks the pool flows out rapidly causing flooding in the plains below the volcano. Odsen says now it appears that no ice dam is forming.

Mr. ODSEN: My mother, I was trying to explain it to her how it's working now, and she said it was like a broken toilet. It's not flushing anymore. It was just have constant leak.

PALCA: A constant leak is better than a cascading torrent.

Next, Sigerin Rainsdotter(ph) presented data from her ground stations that measure how the earth is moving around the volcano. Before the eruption, the earth ballooned out with magma that was ready to erupt. Now, the balloon appears to be deflating.

Ms. SIGERIN RAINSDOTTER: Complicated story but the main thing here is that we are seeing deflation of the volcano, we are not seeing inflation, and that's a good thing.

PALCA: A good thing, yes, but maybe not a really good thing for people who would like to hear the last from Eyjafjallajokull.

Paul Enrison(ph) is a geophysicist at the University of Iceland. He says the nature of the eruption began to change around eight o'clock Sunday morning.

Dr. PAUL ENRISON (Geophysicist, University of Iceland): There are two things that happened at the same time. One was the increase in the seismic tremor, what kind of tremor, and the other one was the sudden lowering of the eruption plume. So, and these are contradictory to each other so that's what puzzles us slightly at this point.

PALCA: That might have meant the volcano was sending lava flows along the ground rather than fragmented magma into the sky. That would have been the easy explanation, but as Bjorn Odsen showed earlier in the meeting, there is no lava. So, Enrison says:

Dr. ENRISON: The easier explanation did not hold, which is very often the case.

PALCA: So, what's going on? Questions differed in the audience at the noon meeting. Some thing the volcano is getting ready to spit out more nasty stuff. Others think it may calm down for a while. You and I certainly know which option air travelers are hoping for.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Reykjavik.

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