Watching the Icelandic volcanoes


Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010

The recent activity at the Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland initially sent holiday makers into a panic with thoughts of the flight disruptions caused by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. However, a combination of changes to air traffic regulations and the effusive nature of the Bárðarbunga eruption have, for the time being, reduced any inconvenience to the public. This has not put an end to SEPA’s involvement in the area though. Here we explain why and how we are continuing to closely monitor any threat to Scotland’s air quality from volcanic activity in Iceland.

Good air quality can often be taken for granted in Scotland, but there are sources of air pollution both within and outwith the country that can have an impact. Air quality in Scotland is monitored by various agencies and local authorities, including SEPA, although the majority of monitoring is undertaken across urban areas in order to protect human health. The eruption of various Icelandic volcanoes between 2010 and 2014 brought their own challenges to Scotland’s air quality, with evidence of volcanic gases and ash being found across the country. At the time of the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions, though, existing monitoring systems struggled to measure the distribution of these pollutants in the air.

Holuhraun fissure eruption at the Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland

Holuhraun fissure eruption at the Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland

Colin Gillespie, one of our air quality specialists, explains:

“During periods of volcanic activity in Iceland, it’s important to monitor the volcanic emissions in order to identify those that could affect Scotland’s air quality.

“In 2010, most of the air monitoring stations were concentrated in and around the central belt of Scotland, with no sulphur dioxide monitors north of Dundee and no particulate matter (dust) monitors north of Aberdeen. This meant that the volcanic plumes and emissions arriving from the north or west following the eruptions in Iceland, would have passed over the whole of the Highlands and Islands before being detected in the central belt.

“So although the existing network did help us to monitor the effects of the volcanic activity in Scotland, at the time it wasn’t specially designed for this type of event. This is why SEPA carried out additional rural monitoring in order to assess the extent of the volcanic impact on Scotland’s environment.”

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption and then the Grímsvötn eruption in 2011 highlighted gaps in Scotland’s monitoring network. In response to this, we have secured funding from the Scottish Government to extend our air quality monitoring capabilities and to establish four new permanent monitoring stations in the Highlands and Islands. These stations will become live in the next few months. During the period of recent activity at the Bárðarbunga volcano, which began erupting from the Holuhraun fissure in 2014, and continued until 2 March 2015 when the eruption was officially declared over, we used temporary stations to monitor for emissions. This addition to the existing network will mean that we are better equipped to detect and report on any effects on air quality to the Scottish Government and the Scottish public.

An Osiris particulate matter analyser in Shetland

An Osiris particulate matter analyser in Shetland

A volcanic eruption can emit large amounts of volcanic ash that, depending on the intensity and type of the eruption, can be released high into the atmosphere. Volcanic ash in the air can increase the amount of particulate matter (dust) inhaled by the public. Gases are also released during eruptions, especially with effusive eruptions such as the recently erupting Bárðarbunga volcano, which didn’t produced much ash but released significant levels of sulphur dioxide gas into the atmosphere.

The new monitoring network being set up in the Highlands and Islands will detect any sulphur dioxide gas and particulate matter from volcanic plumes arriving in Scotland. This will act as part of an early warning system, providing information to our health partners and government that will help them to advise on any potential effects to human health and the Scottish environment.

Chemistry’s role

The additional monitoring network will be operated and maintained by our Chemistry teams, who are located across the country.

As part of our watching brief on volcanic activity in Iceland, we’ve drawn up plans that will be initiated in the event of future volcanic events. These include:

  • Air monitoring: As well as particulate and sulphur dioxide analysers set up in the Highlands and Islands, we can add further analysers if required. We also have scientists regularly checking other sources of data and websites including the Scottish Air Quality Database, the UK Met Office, the Icelandic Met-Office and the Icelandic Environment Agency. In addition, we will set out a passive sampling system in order to collect dust samples, which can be analysed at our laboratories to determine whether it is of volcanic origin.
  • Fluoride: During volcanic events, we can use a network of staff and volunteers to collect grass cuttings. These cuttings are tested for potential fluoride contamination that can come from specific volcanic sources. Elevated levels in vegetation can be dangerous to plants and animals.
  • Rainwater: We have an active network of volunteer rainfall observers who can provide us with rainwater samples during a volcanic event. This allows us to test for a range of pollutants including pH, an indicator of acid rain (a common result of increased sulphur dioxide levels).

In addition to this, our Airborne Hazards Emergency Response service is operational 24/7 every week of the year. The service was initiated in order to monitor pollutants from large fires and chemical releases but our teams are briefed on the potential hazards of volcanic activity.

Looking forward

We are also working in collaboration with the UK Met Office to develop a system of reporting to the Scottish Government to highlight any potential volcanic emission intrusions over Scotland at the earliest possible opportunity. This will allow the Scottish Government to take the most appropriate action, informing health authorities and local authorities on potential air quality issues.

Further information
  1. Following the Grimsvotn eruption in 2011 SEPA, in collaboration with a number of partners, completed a journal paper detailing the UK monitoring and deposition of tephra. This is free to access and can be found online.
  2. SEPA’s making the case for air quality web pages outline what the organisation is doing with regards to air quality.
  3. The Scottish Air Quality database is maintained by Ricardo AEA and contains a lot of useful information and data on Scotland’s air quality.
  4. The Airborne Hazards Emergency Response service (AHERs) has its own webpage or you can watch our short film about AHERs.

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