Part 1, public awareness background
The current hysteria over Katla started at the same time as the ash from the Eyjafjallajökull played havoc with European air travel. Some journalist noted that Iceland’s, at least publicly, most respected volcanologist Professor Páll Einarsson, the man who nailed down the February 2000 Hekla eruption to within 30 minutes, had made claims that Eyjafjallajökull and Katla were linked and that an eruption of the former would lead to the eruption of the latter within a few months. And Katla was a huge volcano whose unavoidably upcoming eruption would be tens of times greater… …at least in the minds of journalists trying to further their professional standing.
The basis for the supposed linkage is that the last two eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, 1612 and 1821 to early 1823 were in both cases followed by eruptions of Katla a few months later, in October 1612 and June 1823. The previous eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 920 AD, just after Iceland was settled, was not followed by an eruption near Katla until 934 AD even if Katla had erupted ahead of Eyjafjallajökull in 920. Also, while there have been only four eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull over the past 1000+ years, Katla has erupted at least 27 times during the same period.
It cannot be claimed that the hypothesis that an eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is always followed within months by an eruption of Katla is particularly strong or convincing. The historical evidence tells us that in at least 25 of 27 instances, Katla has erupted irrespective of what Eyjafjallajökull has done. Denison Professor Erik Klemetti succinctly says that “correlation does not equal causation” and Dr Boris Behncke of INGV Catania gave us an example of a volcano that simultaneously erupted magma of two distinctly different chemical compositions as an example of how difficult it is to correctly identify what goes on at depth below a volcano.
Let us return to Professor Páll Einarsson. If he had been quoted out of context, as so often happens when journalists interview scientists, especially since the former have no concept of the differences between human and geologic time scales, Professor Einarsson has had plenty of opportunities to correct such misrepresentation. He has not done so. Instead he has repeated his assertion in front of other volcanologists at a conference in the United States. Early last autumn he reiterated his belief that Katla would erupt within 18 months of the end of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, and this in spite of the minor subglacial eruption assumed last summer after a small jökulhlaup, which implies that he did not think this episode substantial enough to merit to be credited as the predicted eruption.
To me, this looks like a clear-cut case of a scientist, confident in his own ability after previous successes, going out on a limb and then not have the courage of his convictions to stand up and admit that his pet theory has been proven wrong. As long as he refuses to do so, the 2012, Grub Street or otherwise inspired Katla-mongering has an extremely reputable figurehead and spokesperson, albeit an unwitting one.
The most prolific source for information about Katla is the “Iceland volcano and earthquake blog” hosted by Jón Frímann Jónsson. If you google Katla, alone or accompanied by key words or phrases, you will find that his blog comes up frequently. As an example, I googled “Katla tremor” and the top three results refer you to entries in his blog. He is even credited on the Wikipedia entry for Katla as the source for volcanic unrest in 2010 and the minor eruption of 2011 that led to a minor jökulhlaup in 2011.
Now Jón to his very great credit has made no secret of the fact that he tries to make money from his blog, primarily to support the purchase of more instruments for his hobby but also himself. One of the forms this takes is renumeration for advertisments carried based on the number of visits to his site. As he is a clever young man, he cashes in on the current interest in Katla – he would be a fool not to – and posts topics about her on an almost weekly basis. It is in his interest not to antagonise his visitors with either claims that every minor twitch was a sure sign of impending doom or that nothing was going on. Thus he couches his statements in ambiguous terms such as “time will tell” and it comes as no surprise that he is sometimes quoted as the source for the latest “unrest” at Katla by less reputable sites.
When it comes to the question of reliability, Jón is not a professionally trained volcanologist. He is self-taught. He always supports his topics by screen captures of IMO maps and charts or with print-outs from his own set of seismometers, or “geophones” as he calls them. However, he does make claims that there have been harmonic tremor pulses in named volcanoes or that a certain pattern of earthquakes portents something volcanic, without any professional corroboration of his interpretations whatsoever. Much as I respect Jón, I am not always satisfied with the scientific accuracy of his interpretations. This situation is unfortunate as Jón reaches a very wide audience, one that in many cases is not as critical as it should be, one that accepts as fact what it chooses to believe Jón’s latest word to be.
Unfortunately, there is one aspect of the human psyche that professional volcanologists sometimes seem to blissfully oblivious to. If we are interested in something and feel a need to understand what is going on but cannot obtain reliable facts, we look to the opinions of others whom we often absurdly assume must be better informed than ourselves. If not even that is available or if there are still gaps left, we fill those in with our own, invented, “facts” and/or interpretations. Unfortunately, scientific institutions tend to care more about what other scientific institutions think of their work than about supplying accurate and up-to-date information to, and education of, the general public.
If we apply this to Katla, it is easy to see why so many people are convinced that Katla not only will, but “must” erupt within the very near future: We have Iceland’s most respected volcanologist repeatedly saying that Katla will, is bound to, erupt very soon and really should have done so by now. We have little, verging on none, official information about her true state. We have Jón Frímann Jónsson almost continuously feeding us updates of dubious scientific accuracy with the intent of guaranteeing a steady traffic to his blog, updates couched in suitably ambiguous language that can be interpreted as support for Professor Einarsson’s hypothesis as well as Doomsday prophecies. And Mila have just repaired their Katla webcam at the same time that a very minor flow from the glacier has been reported, an occurrence gratefully seized upon by Jón Fríman Jónsson to proclaim “Katla volcano warming up for an eruption. Small glacier flood continues”
But as I have pointed out, we have had no official statement, which in itself ought to be a good indication that nothing alarming is going on. Or are there really people out there, intelligent people at that, who believe that Allmannavarnír with their excellent track record would say nothing or even cover up such vital information if available?
Páll Einarsson have been notified via email that he was mentioned in here and also been informed that he is more than welcome to comment the issue in here. Jón Frimann has also been notified.