Part 2, A view of Katla
So what really is going on at Katla? Well, we’re not really there yet. In this instalment, I will summarise what I have learnt from reading various scientific or otherwise papers and articles and my current understanding of it. At certain points I will supplement this with what I believe to be or could be the explanation, but when I do, I will say so. Again, I emphasise that I am not an expert in any way.
Katla is a relatively young volcano which like so many Icelandic volcanoes formed when Iceland was covered by ice. Hence it is a tuya, steep-sided with a broad, flat top. Like other large Icelandic volcanoes, it has a very large summit crater described as a caldera, but one that did not come about as a result of the collapse of the volcanic edifice into an emptied and very large magma chamber as happened at Mount Mazama a.k.a. Crater Lake in Oregon, at Krakatoa or at Long Valley.
One of the keys to understand what goes on at Katla is to have an idea of what lies beneath the up to 700 meters thick glacier that covers her crater/caldera. In schematic representations of Katla, a magma chamber at the very shallow depth of three to five kilometres is often displayed. From reading descriptions of other volcanoes that have suffered caldera collapse or looking up a general definition of ”caldera”, it is easy to assume that Katla too must have a magma chamber that spans the entire width of the “caldera” and which, “once-upon-a- time” collapsed to for the present-day caldera. Nothing could be further from the truth, but alas, there is no direct information available that accurately describes what Katla’s magmatic system, the true volcano, looks like. We have to fill this gap ourselves.
The first thing to do is to look at what she has done in the past. If we look up her “Eruptive History” on the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program website, we find that Katla is listed as having had 27 eruptions during the period Iceland has been settled by humans, some eleven centuries and counting. Of these, only the larger eruptions seem to have been registered prior to the middle of the 20th Century. Thus the 27 eruptions are divided as follows: Two VEI 0 (1955 and 1999), three VEI 3, fourteen VEI 4 (including the AD 934 “Eldgjá fissure eruption”) and four VEI 5 with a further four not assigned a VEI number. Of the four unassigned eruptions, one is listed as “subglacial, lava flows” and three “subglacial, explosive”. Please take note of the dearth of smaller eruptions, VEI 0 – 2, as this is important and something we’ll return to later.
From this information, it is clear that Katla cannot have a single, caldera-sized magma chamber because such a chamber would contain several tens to even hundreds of cubic kilometers of magma, which in turn would have led to far larger eruptions. None have occurred. Since VEI 5 is assigned to eruptions that eject between 1 and 9 cubic kilometres of Dense Rock Equivalent (DRE) explosively, and Katla’s VEI 5 eruptions are remarkably consistent at between 1.2 and 1.5 cubic kilometres, anything much larger than some 3 – 4 cu km is rather out of the question. A caveat – given the area covered by the crater/caldera, there could be more than one such chamber responsible for her eruptions, in which case it would be fair to ask the question if Katla really is a single volcano or if not a description of her being several volcanoes rolled into one would be more accurate.
If we look at her eruptive history prior to Iceland being settled, deduced by tephrochronology – ash layers deposited being identified by their physical properties, such as chemical composition and grain size, as belonging to Katla and from the size, distribution and time derived for each individual layer of tephra, an eruption responsible for it is inferred – we find that there have been a multitude of eruptions, but only a few of which have been assigned a VEI number. Interestingly in every such case a VEI 3 or 4 has been deduced. Anything much larger must have left such extensive deposits that such a huge eruption cannot have escaped detection, hence we can conclude that no explosive eruptions larger than a small VEI 5 have ever occurred at Katla.
There have been two exceptions to the rule that Katla’s eruptions normally are in the VEI 4 range volume-wise. Both originate on her NE flank, outside the crater/caldera. Around 5550 BC, Katla was the source of the 5 cubic kilometres “Hólmsá Fires eruption” lava flow. In 934 AD, the four times larger “Eldgjá eruption” spewed forth some 18 cu km of lava and five cu km of tephra, or ash. Even if the total volume erupted in 934 AD, about 22 cu km DRE, is on the order of 50 times greater (25 to 200 times), a lowly “VEI 4?” has been assigned.
As the underlying causes and processes that drive “regional fissure eruptions” are vastly different and as they happen very rarely, seemingly with a time interval measured in several millennia in the same-ish location, fissure or rift eruptions should be considered separately – even if the visual appearance of the Katla crater/caldera suggests that a fissure eruption has at some point in the distant past intersected it. They are mentioned here because an article such as this cannot fail to do so, nor can it fail to give a reason why they are not included in the discussion.
Earlier I mentioned the apparent absence of small eruptions from her eruptive record with only two “possible subglacial eruptions” in 1955 and 1999 listed, to which can now be added the equally suspected or “possible” July 2011 subglacial eruption. As I write this, it seems that there may have been yet another, very minor hlaup. That such eruptions were not noted in earlier days is not surprising as the very small hlaups they resulted in were local nuisances rather than regional catastrophes of a major Katla jökulhlaup and would not have been seen as important enough to be recorded, even had they been observed. But how frequent could this type of small eruption be?
We know from the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption that it was preceded by two fissure eruptions at Fimmvörduhals that intersected each other. If we look at the topography and geography of Eyjafjallajökull, we can see many areas of monogenetic cones. This indicates that eruptions of the Fimmvörduhals type greatly outnumber eruptions at the main vent. At Askja, a similarly sized volcano albeit glacier-free and with a slightly smaller summit crater/ caldera, there have been six small eruptions since the great eruption of 1875 and many prior.
Of the 24 eruptions (not counting the AD 934 Eldgjá fissure eruption) listed before it was realised that there were smaller eruptions that would only show as minor jökulhlaups, 20 are listed as VEI 3 or higher and three of the four not assigned a VEI number are listed as (subglacial and) explosive. At least 17 of the 23 explosive eruptions have been assigned a VEI of 4 or 5. The eruptive record of Katla thus indicates that in order to break through the up to 700 meters thick Mýrdalsjökull glacier, an eruption would need to be at least as powerful as to merit a designation of VEI 3. Thus – the reason for the dearth of smaller eruptions observed is that they are not energetic enough to break through thick glaciers such as Vatnajökull or Mýrdalsjökull to be visually obvious and the minor hlaups resulting have been much too insignificant to have been considered as a result of an eruption that never was seen.
With the advent of aircraft, it was noted that there were pits in the glacier as if it had melted from below and the collapsed to form an ice crater. These pits are relatively numerous and vary in size. They have been explained as due to either strong hydrothermal activity or, in the case of the larger ones, as the result minor subglacial eruptions.
The obvious conclusion is that in the case of Katla, small eruptions of the Fimmvörduhals type far outnumber the bigger, recorded eruptions. This is vital for understanding how a volcano such as Katla is built and works.
Let us for a moment return to what I like to call “Katla’s defrosted twin”, Askja. Here we can see, side by side, the effects of the two types of eruption. In 1875 she had the big VEI 5 eruption, about four times as great as Katla’s historic VEI 5s, that would eventually form lake Öskjuvátn. Here we have a magma chamber where magma collected over time, partially re-melting and absorbing the chamber walls which together with fractionating led to the body of magma collected being far more silicic than the basalt injected into the chamber, which provided the heat or energy for the process. This went on for centuries, quite likely millennia as GVP lists the preceding very large eruption at Askja as having occurred about 11,000 years ago, until a final basaltic intrusion was energetic enough to unbalance the magma chamber and the big eruption of 1875 followed. Please note that both before and after, there have been many smaller, basaltic eruptions that have evidently bypassed the main magma chamber on their way to the surface, one of which caused the miniscule crater Vítí located immediately north of Lake Öskjuvátn.
This too is what I believe must have been happening and is going on at Katla. Sturkell and his co-authors in their 2009 paper “Katla And Eyjafjallajökull Volcanoes” note that the products of Katla’s eruptions are bimodal, comprising alkali basalt and mildly alkalic rhyolites “with intermediates very subordinate”. One, or possibly more magma chambers where magma collects, fractionates and grows more silicic, a process that takes hundreds if not thousands of years which is why more than one magma chamber seems to be required in order to account for the relatively frequent eruptions of Katla, until there eventually is an eruption of “mildly alcalic rhyolites”, accompanied by tens to hundreds of smaller, alkali-basaltic eruptions which due to their location under the ice in a watery environment, gouge out small craters and fill in the bigger ones with mostly small, broken fragments of lava, piles of pillow lava or even small lava flows or easily eroded cones. When a big eruption occurs, the glacier first closes the wound, then the crater gets back-filled with loose rubble which gets pasted over with more solid lava flows from later eruptions.
This process has been going on for as long as Katla has existed. Not only has this constant remodelling inside the crater/caldera left a kilometres-deep zone of clastic, i.e. broken or fragmented, rock mixed with water, it also in my opinion explains how the caldera was formed in the first place. This layer extends down to not much above the roof/-s of the magma chamber/-s. As freshly injected basalt from the mantle makes its way up, it will eventually encounter this water-rich zone and result in intense activity, hydrothermal at first, and if the intrusion continues, hydromagmatic. It is primarily this activity we see when we look at the tremor charts of the SIL-stations surrounding Katla, in particular the one located at Austmannsbunga, on the north-eastern crater/caldera wall.
In the next instalment, it is time to take a look at Katla’s neighbours Eyajafjallajökull and the Gódabunga “cryptodome” and try and separate their activity from that of Katla so that we can finally figure out what she may have been up to over the last few years and how likely an eruption in the near future could be.