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Iceland's Hekla Volcano Shows Signs Of Activity, No Eruption Imminent

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Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

One of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, Hekla, has been showing signs of potential activity as of late, prompting National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police to declare an “uncertainty phase” for the snow-capped peak.

Geologists at the Icelandic Met Office reported unusual seismic activity on the mountain over the past two to three weeks, but said there was no sign that an eruption was imminent. The “uncertainty phase” alert is the lowest level alert for an Icelandic volcano.

Tuesday’s alert was the first one to come in two years and the first one specifically for Hekla since its last eruption on February 26, 2000. Hekla has erupted four times since 1970 at a rate of about once every ten years. It has now been more than 13 years since its last eruption, and scientists fear it could be ready to blow.

While the “state of uncertainty” alert is only the first of three steps and only considered a warning, scientists caution that the string of seven micro-earthquakes that have jolted the region since March 10 just northeast of the summit is highly unusual and could be a foreboding sign that the peak is ready to erupt.

The region has already dealt with two large eruptions in the last few years.

An ash cloud from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull forced air travel to be grounded throughout Europe, costing the airline industry $2 billion and reminding citizens around the world how vulnerable modern amenities are in the face of natural disasters.

The following year, the nearby Grimsvotn volcano erupted, putting more ash into the air in 36 hours than its neighboring belcher did in an entire month. But the 2011 eruption was not nearly as catastrophic to air travel as Eyjafjallajokull because prevailing winds pushed the ash away from populated areas.

Hekla, deemed the “Gateway to Hell” during the Middle Ages, could now be ready to give Grimsvotn and Eyjafjallajokull a run for their money.

Tuesday’s alert also included warnings against travel to the mountain, which is a popular recreation area for tourists and locals alike, according to the French Tribune.

The IMO told AFP there was no smoke rising from the peak, but dark clouds seen from the ground could lead people to think an eruption was occurring. Currently, the alert is just a precautionary measure due to the “increased earthquake activity.”

Hekla’s eruptions are also extremely variable, some lasting less than a week, and others belching out for up to a year. While its flare-ups since 1970 have all been relatively minor, the last major eruption in March 1947 went on for more than a year, spewing ash out as high as 92,000 feet and settling on the ground as far away as Russia.

Hekla’s 2000 eruption was much shorter, lasting only 12 days. But it was a powerful event, with an ash cloud measuring more than 9 miles long.

That event came largely “without any warning,” Martin Hensch, an earthquake expert with the IMO, told the News of Iceland. “The last time the volcano erupted we knew it one hour in advance… We are not very worried that an eruption is going to take place [right away], but predicting an eruption in Hekla volcano is nearly impossible.”

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