Sneeze next to the Katla volcano, goes the joke in this Icelandic village, and a seismologist in Reykjavik will analyze the disturbance. After a summer of increased seismic activity at Katla, Icelanders are obsessing over the smallest sign of an eruption at the country’s most closely watched volcano.
Katla last erupted in 1918. Never before in recorded history, dating back to the 12th century, have 99 years passed without an eruption from the volcano. Eight out of the last 10 eruptions at Katla have occurred between September and November, when glacial melting is believed to create conditions for the magma to burst forth.
Vik, a coastal hamlet known for its black sand beach and red-roofed concrete church, is prepared for the worst. In the event of an eruption, a text message will be sent to every mobile phone connected to the regional network. All 543 residents will know what to do — inform their neighbors — and where to go: the church, which is sheltered by the mountain.
Air travelers and visitors to Iceland should also take note. The last major volcanic eruption in the north Atlantic nation created an ash cloud that stranded more than 10 million people in April 2010. And while civil defense officials are confident of procedures for notifying locals, they are still developing plans for alerting tourists who are flocking to Iceland’s waterfalls and geysers in record numbers.
“Tourists are the greatest challenge today,” said Vidir Reynisson, a Katla specialist at the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management. “They are in large numbers, spread out and less likely than locals to be aware of emergency actions.” Of Iceland’s 30 active volcanoes, none is watched more closely than Katla. One of the nation’s largest and most feared, Katla lies under glacial ice hundreds of meters (yards) thick, meaning that any eruption is likely to melt the ice and cause widespread flooding.