The media in England has been creating anxiety around an impending eruption of Katla volcano, despite redactions from numerous news outlets in Iceland and expert opinions to the contrary.

According to Evgenia Ilyinskaya, a researcher who uncovered an increase in carbon dioxide emissions from the Iceland volcano, her work merely “help[s] to predict how activity may change in the future.”

It isn’t, in other words, imminent that Katla volcano will erupt.  

Ilyinskaya’s report on the increase of gases is a part of a larger research project into volcanic gases and aerosols. Previously, Ilyinskaya, who harshly criticized the British media’s reporting on the potential eruption, installed gas monitoring systems at Hekla volcano, which “now forms part of the permanent monitoring network of Hekla operated by the Icelandic Met Office (Vedurstofa Islands).” She hopes to see long-term monitoring at Katla as well.

In an interview with Guide to Iceland Now, Ilyinskaya stated that her team “found that Katla was emitting a large amount of gas and we think it indicates that there is some magma underneath that is producing this gas. But we cannot say at this time whether the gas is increasing because we don’t have a longer time series. If future measurements find the gas is found to be increasing then it could be an indication of magma accumulating under the volcano. But it is too early to tell.”

Tabloid Journalism to Blame

“Giant Iceland Volcano About to Erupt,” the Daily Mail wrote; “Scientists Warn of Massive Eruption,” the Standard trumpeted before taken down the inflated article. The same blatantly exaggerated reports followed at outlets like the Sunday Express, the Daily Mirror, and the Sun, some of which posited that the eruption would be as violent as the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which famously stopped air traffic in Europe. The Evening Standard set up a live feed, which is still in progress, though now it’s being used to monitor the aggravated volcanologist’s clarifications.

Ilyinskaya tweeted that she has previously told the Sunday Times that “the severity of Eyjafjallajökull air traffic disruption was very unusual and unlikely to happen if Katla erupts, and still, they quote me as saying exactly the opposite!”

Many of the exaggerated reports over the past week have been a result of the Sunday Times’ reporting, which wove a narrative in which an eruption was imminent, despite specialists comments that it’s unclear when (and to what extent) Katla will erupt. Guide to Iceland Now previously reported that the likelihood of an eruption was minimal, in an interview with noted professor Jónas Elíasson. 

Ilyinskaya has stated that the reports are grossly exaggerated and that the papers twisted her words to suit their own purposes.

She wrote on Facebook that she finds it “Incredibly disappointing to see that The Sunday Times have gone down the route of trashy tabloids.”

The Real Story behind Katla Volcano Research

The project used a jet aircraft that was modified for scientific monitoring of the atmosphere, since gases as subglacial volcanoes are difficult to track using conventional methods. It’s fitted with a multitude of scientific instruments, but the project used a ‘Fast Greenhouse Gas Analyser’, which is used to detect carbon dioxide and methane gas. In its second year of research at Katla, the research group registered an increase in gases, which could indicate dense magma beneath the volcano.

The official research paper that, in fact, preceded the Katla volcano media catastrophe stated in three key points the team’s only conclusions:

  1. Subglacial volcanoes are underrepresented in terms of gas monitoring but we show that they can be major emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2)
  2. Katla volcano is found to be one of largest volcanic sources of CO2 on the planet, contributing up to 4% of [CO2 of] all non‐erupting volcanoes
  3. High‐precision airborne measurements combined with atmospheric modelling are a powerful method to monitor poorly accessible volcanoes [like those beneath a glacier]

In other words, the paper focused on developing methods for monitoring volcanoes that are beneath glaciers, which are difficult to access. The report suggests that the Iceland volcano, which is one of the most frequently active and unpredictable volcanoes in Europe, should be monitored consistently for indications of a sudden eruption, but at this time, the data doesn’t indicate with any certainty that an eruption will occur.