ICELAND: Volcano puts academics to the fore

The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano this month provided an active subject for many of the world's vulcanologists. As ash from the volcano grounded planes across much of Europe, scientists were studying the eruption and fielding news media inquiries about it.

At the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, balloons previously developed to measure Saharan dust storms were pressed into service for monitoring the ash cloud over Europe.

"Volcanic ash is much like a desert storm," said Dr Joseph Ulanowski of the university's Science and Technology Research Institute.

The university launched its balloons when the ash cloud was over Scotland and used its probes to back up the British Meteorological Office's work.

In Germany, the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology published regular aerosol measurements for the atmosphere over Hamburg.

And in the Netherlands, Iceland volcano expert Andy Hooper spoke at Delft University of Technology about his research on Ejyafjallajokull.

The lecture was live-streamed on the internet to an international audience and covered his research using satellite and GPS into the surface around Iceland's volcanoes.

Early in the volcano's eruption, the public sought expert opinion on topics including how long the eruption might last.

Professor Reidar Trønnes of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology had a sobering view. He said a month-long eruption was not out of the question although it could also continue for a year or more.

Dr Colin Macpherson of the department of earth sciences at Durham University suggested worse. He said: "Eyjafjallajokull has been active at least 12 times over the past 800,000 years, with the previous eruption lasting two years."

Reidar Trønnes and other vulcanologists also warned that Ejyafjallajokull's larger neighbour, Katla, could also erupt.

"Katla has had two large eruptions every century since Iceland was settled 1,100 years ago," Trønnes said. "It is long overdue - or it could mean that Katla has changed its behaviour."

The Science Media Centre in London pulled together extensive commentary from scientists about the eruption and particularly the impact of the ash cloud from the volcano.

While the cost of the disruption caused by Eyjafjallajokull is still being counted, one has to wonder if the University of Iceland might benefit in a small way.

It has a summer school scheduled for August. The subject? Volcanoes.