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Páll Einarsson on the Hekla eruption scare: ‘sensational stories about Hekla based on nothing at all’ 8 July 2011

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Followers of the current Hekla eruption scare, and particularly of the role played by the media, will be interested to read an interview with Professor Páll Einarsson of the University of Iceland published in IceNews, in which he expresses his frustration with the ability of the media to make sensational stories out of nothing at all:

… geophysicist Páll Einarsson said in interview with IceNews today that the current volcano scare is simply made up: “They are actually quoting me as saying that Hekla will erupt soon; but there is nothing new in this. I’ve been saying this for three or four years and ‘soon’ means different things to journalists and geologists,” he said.

Not for the first time, news outlets have latched onto something Professor Einarsson said, or rather something they thought he said, and made a colossal heap of fear-mongering nonsense out of it: ‘The last scare earlier this year, about Bardarbunga which came to nothing, was based on a bad translation from Icelandic. This time there is not even that excuse’. And journalists who know nothing about the subject they are writing about have a strange reluctance to go for information to people who do know something about it: ‘A lot of this news is even built around quotes by ‘experts’ who are not, in fact, real experts. … Journalists should talk to experts and not just take their news from anyone!’

Páll Einarsson has some particularly harsh words for the British press, accusing them of ‘sensationalist journalism’ and ‘making sensational stories about Hekla based on nothing at all’. The British media, sensationalist? making stuff up? not interested in the facts? Good heavens, what a shocking idea.

News
Icelandic scientist surprised by Hekla volcano eruption sensation – IceNews, 7 July 2011

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How the media gets it wrong, at Eruptions Blog 7 July 2011

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No, Daily Telegraph, that is NOT Hekla.
‘Hekla is known for its extremely varied and hard-to-predict eruptions’, says the Daily Telegraph. It is also known for not being by the sea.

Erik Klemetti has a nightmare. It’s called ‘the way the media reports volcanoes’. Click here to read Erik’s high-class rant about the recent crop (e.g., see above) of volcanic misreporting. A new abomination from Canada’s CBC gets a particular and richly-deserved pasting.

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Restless Hekla: an update 7 July 2011

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Left: Hekla. Right: not Hekla.
The global news machine showed much interest in Hekla yesterday, but little interest in getting the facts right, or indeed the volcano right. Many supposedly reputable news outlets followed AFP’s lead and boldly illustrated their reports on Hekla with a picture of Eldfell, which is many miles to the west on Heimaey Island. AFP even labelled their picture of Eldfell ‘The Hekla volcano on Heimaey Island’, for pity’s sake. You’d think the presence of the sea in the picture of Eldfell would have given it away, Hekla being some distance inland, but apparently not. To help journalists and editors get it right I’ve provided pictures of the two volcanoes above, and obtained the assistance of a passing seven-year-old in providing labels so clear that even Daily Mail journalists will grasp the difference.

There was considerable interest in Hekla yesterday, but media speculation notwithstanding, all is quiet there today and the activity appears to be subsiding. Hekla is closely-monitored and we’ll be as well-informed about what it’s doing as we are about any volcanoes anywhere. In the meantime, it’s best not to jump the gun and read too much into every episode of seismic restlessness.

The forecasting of volcanic eruptions is fraught with uncertainty. Volcanoes, unlike earthquakes, generally give some signal of their intentions in the form of seismic activity, inflation, gas emissions and so on, but working out what those signals mean is no easy matter, and even the most sophisticated analysis of the widest possible range of data can never do more than reduce the level of uncertainty, it can never remove it altogether.

Likewise, a particular volcano’s history is an important guide to current and future behaviour, but no matter how full and detailed our knowledge of a volcano’s past may be, it is not an infallible guide to that same volcano’s future. Significant patterns can emerge from the records we have of a volcano’s previous activity, in terms of eruptive style and periodicity, but they can never be more than indicative. You can’t say, for example, that because volcano ‘A’ turns out to have erupted roughly every ten years since 1970, and it is now 11 years since its last eruption, that a big bang is imminent. Nor can you argue that because the geological record for volcanic field ‘B’ shows eruptive activity about every 2000 years and it is now 5000 years since we last had a peep out of it, it is ‘overdue’ and we should be worried. Human beings like patterns, and we particularly like periodicity: it provides a structure for our understanding of the past, and we like to use it to make some sense of the future too. But it has to be considered alongside other evidence and cannot offer anything but a set of pointers.

For volcanoes a knowledge of the chronological pattern of activity only gets us part of the way to understanding what is going on at any given moment, and what is likely to happen within the next month, year, decade or century — and it can never be definitive. Hekla has a volatile history and is active and restless, and will erupt again, but we do not know when: it could happen tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years or twenty (there was a gap of 23 years between the 1970 eruption and its predecessor in 1947, and 57 years between that eruption and the one before that in 1913, so the ten-year cycle is a pretty recent development anyway). It is not ‘overdue’. Nor is it ‘ready to erupt’:* we’ll know when it is ‘ready to erupt’ because it will then erupt.

* Did Páll Einarsson actually use this phrase? And if he did (in Icelandic), has the meaning he intended been faithfully reproduced (in English translation) by the news sources that have seized upon the phrase? In the past Dr Einarsson has not always been well-served by the way his comments have become distorted in translation or otherwise misrepresented: see examples from October 2009 and February 2011.

Information
Global Volcanism Program: Hekla – summary information for Hekla (1702-07=)

The Volcanism Blog

Iceland: restless Hekla ‘ready to erupt’? (updated) 6 July 2011

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Seismic activity detected beneath Iceland’s Hekla volcano over the past few days appears to be the result of magma movement, according to Páll Einarsson of the University of Iceland, suggesting that the volcano could be heading towards eruption. The news agency AFP reports:

‘The movements around Hekla have been unusual in the last two to three days and have been recorded in five very precise metres placed around Mount Hekla’, University of Iceland expert Pall Einarsson said, adding that while this might not necessarily mean an immediate blast, the volcano is ready to erupt’.

There’s coverage of the situation at Hekla at Jón Frímann’s Iceland Volcano and Earthquake Blog. More news sources are given below, and a webcam view of Hekla can be found at RÚV. More news here if and when comes in.

UPDATE. Many thanks to an Icelandic-speaking reader who has sent me a summary of this article from RÚV, which expands somewhat on the version being given in the English-language press. Páll Einarsson is quoted as saying that it is not possible to conclude on the basis of the seismic data that an eruption is imminent, but that the signs of magma movement beneath the volcano are clear and that the volcano is ‘ready to erupt’. Inflation has been taking place at Hekla for some years, says Einarsson, and the volcano has in fact been building up to a new eruption ever since the last one (which was in 2000) came to an end. My informant adds that the Icelandic public safety authorities have said that there is no need for people living around Hekla to take any action as yet. She lives fairly near Hekla, and is watching developments closely.

FURTHER UPDATE. A new article has been published by the Iceland Review translating more of Páll Einarsson’s comments, under the headline ‘Activity in Hekla not necessarily indication of eruption’: ‘Einarsson told ruv.is that the volcano is certainly ripe for an eruption but the sensors are new and there isn’t enough experience with them to draw any conclusive assumptions. … However, he is not in doubt that Hekla is ready to burst. The volcano has been extending slowly but surely in the past years as magma is accumulating below it. Hekla has been preparing to erupt ever since the last eruption concluded in 2000’. Meanwhile the news of another potential Icelandic eruption is exciting the global media. Full marks to the inimitable New York Post for its low-key headline: ‘Iceland’s “gateway to hell” volcano ready to erupt, experts say’. And is that Hekla in the accompanying photograph? I think not. [More volcano photo confusion idiocy courtesy of Yahoo here – thanks to Boris Behncke for finding that one.]

It has to be pointed out that whatever Hekla’s seismicity may have been like over the last two or three days, things are very quiet around the gateway to hell at the moment, according to the IMO’s seismicity pages.

AND MORE. Describing Hekla as ‘ready to erupt’ might not be the best way to put it, reflects Dr Erik Klemetti as he puts the current Hekla flurry into context at Eruptions: ‘The million dollar question is how we can interpret these volcano monitoring data – is the volcano going to erupt tomorrow, next week, 5 years from now? Unfortunately, we just don’t have the experience yet to know what the changes being seen at Hekla mean in terms of the timing of an eruption’.

News
Unusual activity around Hekla volcanoIceland Review, 5 July 2011
Iceland’s Hekla volcano ‘ready to erupt’ – AFP, 6 July 2011
Iceland Hekla volcano ready to blowThe Times (South Africa), 6 July 2011
Experts say Iceland’s Hekla volcano is ‘ready to erupt’ – Agenzia Giornalistica Italia, 6 July 2011
Óvenjulegar hreyfingar í Heklu – RÚV, 6 July 2011
Activity in Hekla not necessarily indication of eruptionIceland Review, 6 July 2011

Information
Global Volcanism Program: Hekla – summary information for Hekla (1702-07=)

The Volcanism Blog

Quick note: more on Hekla 13 January 2010

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Last week we reported hints from Iceland that Hekla may be building up to an eruption. No new substantive news on that, but the English-language Iceland Review has caught up with the story and has a report here. And the Hekla webcam seems to be working again.

For an Icelandic artist’s view of Hekla, see Saturday Volcano Art: Thórarinn B. Thorláksson, ‘Hekla from Laugurdalur’ (1922).

News
Iceland’s Hekla could erupt with short noticeIceland Review, 12 January 2010

Information
Global Volcanism Program: Hekla – summary information for Hekla (1702-07=)

The Volcanism Blog

Hekla building up to an eruption? 5 January 2010

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Can we expect an eruption of Icelandic volcano Hekla in the near future? According to a report at Visir.is (original here, English version at IceNews), University of Iceland geophysicist Freysteinn Sigmundsson has said that pressure in the magma chamber ‘is similar now to immediately before the last Hekla eruption’. This information, Sigmundsson says, ‘should be used as an early warning of an upcoming eruption and monitoring and general preparedness should be increased accordingly’.

There’s a longer report in the Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid, which is in Icelandic only. The translation served up by Google hints that temperature increases have been recorded at the surface at Hekla and suggests that magma may only be 2-3 km below the summit, but I’d welcome a proper translation.

Hekla’s last eruption was in the spring of 2000. Since 1970 it has erupted roughly every ten years (although that doesn’t mean it’s going to keep to that timetable in the future).

There is a webcam for Hekla here, although it is currently down for maintenance.

News
Hekla gæti gosið á næstunni – Vísir.is, 3 January 2010
Gæti gosið með skömmum fyrirvaraMorgunbladid, 3 January 2010
Hekla threatens to erupt – IceNews, 4 January 2010

Information
Global Volcanism Program: Hekla – summary information for Hekla (1702-07=)

The Volcanism Blog

Icelandic volcanoes ‘preparing their next eruptions’? 9 October 2009

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In Iceland, some notable volcanoes are ‘preparing their next eruptions’, according to this article in the English-language Iceland Review:

The Icelandic volcanoes Hekla and Grímsvötn are likely to erupt shortly, according to geophysicist Páll Einarsson. Katla, which lies underneath the icecap of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, has been quiet ever since a period of six years of unrest ended in 2005, but Askja should be paid close attention to, he said in an interview on the radio program Morgunvaktin on Rás 2 on Tuesday.

It’s notable that Páll Einarsson does not say ‘Hekla and Grímsvötn are likely to erupt shortly’. That’s an invention of the journalist.

What Einarsson does say is that ‘Volcanic eruptions happen every two or three years in Iceland in general … Some [volcanoes] are preparing their next eruptions, including Hekla and Grímsvötn’, although he avoids the ‘eruption overdue’ fallacy by pointing out that just because Hekla has erupted every ten years in the past that doesn’t mean it’s going to continue to do so. With an eye to possible locations of future activity, Einarsson warns that attention should be paid to unrest at Askja and Upptyppingar, where an inflow of magma into the base of the crust has been suggested as the cause of an earthquake swarm in 2007.

[Thanks to Stefan at stromboli.org for the tip.]

UPDATE. Further startling volcanological insights from Icelandic Review: ‘Volcanoes are nature’s PMS’, says Nanna Árnadóttir.

News
Volcanoes in Iceland preparing to eruptIceland Review Online, 8 October 2009

The Volcanism Blog

Saturday Volcano Art: Thórarinn B. Thorláksson, ‘Hekla from Laugurdalur’ (1922) 28 March 2009

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Thorarinn B. Thorlaksson, 'Hekla from Laugurdalur' (1922)

Hekla, the most active volcano in Iceland, has a distinctive elongated humped shape built up by repeated fissure eruptions and is a prominent feature of the southern Icelandic landscape. Its frequent eruptions and forbidding aspect have given this famous volcano a grim reputation: in local folklore Hekla was long known as one of the mouths of hell.

In Thórarinn Thorláksson’s 1922 painting ‘Hekla from Laugurdalur’, however, the volcano is depicted in a more positive light. It rises over the landscape like a guardian spirit, the evening sunlight touching its snowy slopes with a rosy light – noble and remote, but benign.

Thórarinn B. Thorláksson (1867-1924) was one of the pioneers of modern Icelandic art, concerned with exploring and expressing a distinctive Icelandic identity, particularly through the depiction of the Icelandic landscape. Thorláksson studied in Denmark and assimilated the prevailing Danish academic approach to landscape painting, which was conservative and naturalistic, but also also sought to give his work a truly Icelandic character, giving expression to the unique qualities of his homeland. He exhibited his work in Reykjavik in 1900, the first such exhibition ever held by an Icelandic painter in Iceland.

Hekla and the landscapes around it were favourite subjects for Icelandic artists. Thorláksson painted Hekla many times, giving the volcano an almost iconic status as a symbol of Icelandic identity. His ‘Hekla from Laugurdalur’ is a view of the volcano from the north-west, and shows Hekla rising above a green-blue landscape in which stunted vegetation and bare soil convey the ever-present tension in Iceland between barrenness and fertility. There is a sense of intimacy in the enclosed valley in the foreground, contrasting with the indeterminate spaces of the wide valley that opens beyond. Distant dark blue uplands rise like ramparts, with the volcano looming above, its form picked out with lightness and clarity. Hekla, the agent of destruction and violence, here slumbers peacefully in the light of the long Northern evening.

For all ‘Saturday volcano art’ articles: Saturday volcano art « The Volcanism Blog.

References

Julian Freeman, Landscapes from a High Latitude: Icelandic Art 1909-1989 (London: Lund Humphries, 1989)

Neil Kent, The Soul of the North: A Social, Architectural and Cultural History of the Nordic Countries, 1700-1940 (London: Reaktion, 2000)

Ólafur Kvaran (ed.), Þórarinn B. Þorláksson: Pioneer at the Dawn of a Century (Reykjavik: Listasafn Íslands/National Gallery of Iceland, 2000)

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