Yes, I copied and pasted that name – the volcano in Iceland that had a major eruption yesterday. While Eyjafjallajokull had been rumbling since late March, yesterday was the first significant ejection of ash. It was the ash, which could do a big number on jet engines, that has stranded most European air travel. For all I know, the delay I had this morning at the Baltimore airport was due to ripple effects from canceled flights and the need to find places for active flights and grounded planes.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has volcano information and images, the U.S. Geological Survey (which gets slightly more science policy attention that the Department of Agriculture – not much) should be your first stop. As you might expect, the focus is on volcanoes in U.S. territory, where there are 169 active volcanoes. They are monitored frequently for seismic activity, deformation, and volcanic gases, which can suggest possible future activity that would require the public to take action. This would include likely paths for any ejection plumes, given weather patterns at the time. It’s not as precise as tsunami monitoring, but some ears to the ground have to be better than none. The early warning capacity in this area is still relatively new.
Back to Eyjafjallajokull, which usually appears to behave much like the Hawaiian volcanoes (lava flows that are easier to evade) rather than the ash ejections seen in continental U.S. eruptions. While the particular eruption and plume do not appear to match that of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, the length and severity of recent activity certainly goes further than what most people are familiar with. Should the heat of Eyjafjallajokull make it easier for neighboring volcanoes to bubble up, there could be some significant activity ahead.