Look what popped up on the BBC website today. In fact, a google search for “Katla volcano Ford Cochran” (the guy quoted in that article) turns up 57 new items published in the last 24 hours. Apparently, “there are signs of an imminent volcanic eruption”. The problem is that while it is actually a piece about how potentially dangerous Katla can be as a volcano, it is presented in a way which suggests it is imminently going to be causing us trouble.
For those not familiar with this favourite volcano of fearmongers, Katla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, and has been known in the past to produce up to VEI 6 eruptions, comparable in scale to the 1991 Pinatubo event. That would certainly be a problem for a lot of NW Europe, and there is no doubt that as far as risk management goes in Icelandic volcanology, it is a concern. The Eyjafjall eruptions in the last few years took us by surprise, and caused a lot of disruption, but that is largely because Iceland has been relatively silent over the last 40 years, so we just got used to it being that way. Make no mistake; Iceland is a highly active area, and we will almost certainly see more eruption in the coming years, and Katla will almost certainly erupt again within my lifetime.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that Katla has almost certainly already erupted this year. In July a melting of the overlying glacier was attributed to a small volume eruption, resulting in a flood of meltwater ( a jökulhlaup) into the surrounding river basins. Below is a great video shot from helicopter in the summer, showing the collapse of part of the overlying glacier into the void created by melting of underlying ice, and some of the floodwater deposits that formed as a result. Interestingly, all that stuff covering the Katla glacier is ash from the Eyjafjall eruption earlier this year.
So if Katla has erupted already this year, and we know there is a big risk, why are these journalists being irresponsible?
Well, for starters it appears that this new news story is in fact old. For some reason over the last few days, a rumour has spread that Katla is moving to an active phase again. Reports like this BBC one report an increase in seismicity, and “500 quakes in the last month”. Actually, constant quake activity around Katla is not unusual – much of it is related to the glacier as much as the volcano. If you actually want to fact check as a journalist, the Icelandic Met Office famously have all their seismic data publicly available on their website.
The BBC article is reporting seismic activity which is 6 months old, and tying it to a statement about how dangerous Katla can be. Quite why it has only now been published I don’t know. Sure enough, it’s getting repeated all over the web.
What really frustrates me about this article though, is not the fact it’s 6 months old, or that it’s a pointless scaremongering about something which isn’t actually happening, or even the fact the journalist and editor couldn’t be bothered to try a little fact checking. It is the use of the phrase “eruption ‘long overdue'”. It demonstrates a complete misunderstanding and misreporting of probabilities in natural events to present anything in this way. It is completely ludicrous to give a volcano a due date like some kind of earth-mother ready to birth. It is a often repeated, and never appropriate phrase which journalists love to use, and which drives geologists properly round the bend.
So, were I not a reasonable human being, I might be tempted to borrow the Idiot Clarkson approach and apply it to journalists who refuse to learn their lesson.