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Weather satellites capture shots of volcanic plume blasting through clouds

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Just in case you forgot that the Earth is one of the most geologically active worlds in the solar system, the Icelandic volcano Grimsvötn has sent a very loud reminder: after seven years of relative inactivity, the volcano woke up on Saturday, rocketing a plume 11 kilometers (7 miles) into the air. The ash column blasted through the cloud layer, and was seen by weather satellites in space.

That was the view from the Meteosat-9, a European satellite in geostationary orbit. The animation is composed of visible light images and covers just under a three hour time span on May 21. You can clearly see the plume breaching the cloud layer and spreading out, then a second plume blowing through shortly thereafter. The shadow of the plume on the clouds gives an excellent but eerie sense of the scale of this event.

Here’s a similar view from the US GOES 13 satellite showing 3.5 hours of the eruption:

Note the oblique angle and distance; GOES 13 orbits the Earth far west of the volcano. In the last frame of the animation you can see the outline of Iceland to give you an idea of the size of this event.

This volcano has erupted many times over the past few decades. I knew Iceland was active, but what really brought it home to me in this case was a quote by a company that operates the airport facilities in Iceland, when a 220 km no-fly zone around the volcano was established: it was described as “standard procedure around eruptions”.

Yikes. The fact that they even need a “standard procedure” is eyebrow-raising to me; where I live, volcanoes are somewhat rare (maybe more so now than a millennia ago). However, this eruption doesn’t currently look like it will be a big danger to air travel like last year’s eruption of Eyjafjalajökull was; the ash is made of bigger particles which fall to the ground more quickly, and the volcano itself is located in a relatively isolated part of southeast Iceland.

Still, clearly, researching volcanoes and their eruptions is critical to many areas of life. Besides the knowledge added to our basic scientific understanding of geology and the Earth, monitoring and understanding volcanoes has a huge impact on air traffic, weather, and the daily lives of millions of people.

Image credits: CIMSS, UW-Madison (from images by EUMETSAT and NOAA). Tip o’ the caldera to Jonatan Gislason.

Lightning is common in volcanic plumes, but this one produced quite a bit more than usual. The footage is striking.

Also, NASA released a beautiful image of the plume as seen by the Earth-observing Terra satellite:

Note the scale; the ash column is over 20 km (12 miles) across. I said in the post earlier it reached 11 km in height; however the NASA news release states that it reached over 20 km high!

There is some indication the ash may be a threat to air travel in the UK, too. That’s a bummer; Eyjafjalajökull disrupted air travel for weeks. Let’s hope this one subsides sooner.

Video from Jon Gustafsson on Vimeo; Terra image from Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC


Via DiscoverMagazine

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