The toxic cloud from the Iceland volcanic eruption hangs over northern Europe: should we worry?

If the expression “toxic cloud” revives painful memories of Chernobyl, here it designates a completely different phenomenon. There is no radioactivity on the horizon, but there are massive amounts of sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of an underground volcano that, since March 16, has destroyed the soil of the Reykjanes peninsula, in Iceland, for the fourth time.

Data from the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), part of the European Union’s Copernicus satellite programme, show that the initial gas spill formed a “concentrated column 5 kilometers high” which has since moved to other northern European countries, Live Science reports.

“Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from the latest volcanic eruption in Iceland are moving eastwards from the North Atlantic, across Ireland and the United Kingdom, and will reach Scandinavia, the Baltics, Poland and the northwest Russia in the coming days”completes El Mundo with the Spanish press agency EFE.

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15 volcanoes, among the most dangerous in the world

50 kg of sulfur dioxide per second

On March 17, the volcano was spewing about 50 kg of sulfur dioxide per second, according to a Live Science translation of a statement from the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO). Which noted in its most recent report that the eruptive activity appeared “relatively stable” on the fifth day of the event (El Mundo with EFE).

Colorless, heavier than air and with a pungent odor, sulfur dioxide is a gas harmful to human health in high concentrations: “Acute exposure is responsible for severe respiratory problems with pulmonary edema and bronchoconstriction” (toxicological file of the National Research and Safety Institute). For this reason, workers at the Svartsengi power plant, located near the eruption, were evacuated due to high levels of gas (RúV).

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Although the amount of SO2 emitted since the eruption that began on March 16 has certainly been much higher than in previous episodes, the situation on a European scale is not so alarming. Mark Parrington, CAMS scientist, says: “We do not expect there to be any impact on surface air quality or climate” (release).

Ozone layer

However, monitoring sulfur dioxide emissions remains essential because this gas can react with atmospheric ozone molecules, thereby reducing the amount of this substance in the ozone layer, which protects the Earth’s surface from the harmful effects of sun (Live Science).

“The impact of the Icelandic volcanic eruptions on the atmosphere has not been very significant so far, but their evolution must continue to be monitored”explained CAMS director Laurence Rouil.

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Furthermore, the consequences of this new eruption could have been more serious: the lava flow has not only (barely) so far saved the city of Grindavík, previously evacuated as a precaution, but, above all, it has not reached the sea, but contact with salt water could have released a column of hydrochloric acid, “which would have endangered the lives of anyone near the coast”reports Live Science.

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