Despite screaming headlines in the British tabloids and even the normally staid Sunday Times, there is no sign that Iceland's Katla volcano will erupt any time soon, scientists say.
The wild headlines warned that the "Icelandic giant is about to erupt" and "Scientists warn huge Iceland volcano is about to erupt, and it could even dwarf 2010 ash cloud."
The stories were based on a recent scientific study that said the Katla volcano is a globally important source of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, according to the study's lead author – and did not say whether the volcano was nearing eruption, especially one that could cause widespread disruption of European air travel.
"I said explicitly that we are in no position to say whether or not Katla volcano is ready to erupt; and that air traffic disruption in case of an eruption is unlikely to be as serious as in 2010," said study lead author Evgenia Ilyinskaya, a volcanologist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.
The Katla volcano is located in southwestern Iceland, not far from the infamous Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which belched out tons of ash in 2010. The ash from that volcanic eruption caused tens of thousands of trans-Atlantic airline flights to be canceled, wreaking travel havoc worldwide.
It was “incredibly disappointing to see that @thesundaytimes have gone down the route of trashy tabloids,” Ilyinskaya tweeted. “This article misinforms their readers and undermines me as a scientist and a specialist in my field. Shameful job."
Volcanic ash can cause catastrophic damage to aircraft, particularly to engines. In several cases since 1982, tragedy was narrowly averted after pilots were able to restart engines after descending as much as 20,000 feet after traveling through ash.
Katla erupts about twice per century; the last confirmed eruption was in 1918, according to NASA.
British tabloids such as the Sun and the Daily Express are notorious for sensational science stories, and they seem especially fascinated by predictions of volcanic eruptions, giant earthquakes and meteor strikes.
The study Ilynisha authored, published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters, said the Katla volcano "is one of the largest volcanic sources of CO2 on Earth, releasing up to 5 percent of total global volcanic emissions. This is significant in a context of a growing awareness that natural carbon dioxide sources have to be more accurately quantified in climate assessments."
She did clarify that all the world's volcanoes combined emit less than 2 percent of CO2 emissions from human activities. "So there there should be no suggestion that climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions could be caused by volcanoes rather than human activities."
Overall, however, Ilyinskaya said “the real shame here is that the true version of the story was already very important and interesting in itself. We discovered something totally unexpected and mind-blowing about Katla volcano AND the discovery may help forecast its eruptions better in the future."
Meanwhile, actual predictions of the timing of future eruptions remain elusive: Sarah Barsotti of the Icelandic Meteorological Office told the Sunday Times that "there is no way of telling when it will erupt, just that it will."