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A stunning new video of Iceland's rumbling, smoking volcano Eyjafjallajokull shows rainbow-like shockwaves belching from the crater like snakes from a can of nuts. Nothing to fear, though, it's merely the aftereffects of Plinian events. Quick explained that in a vulcanian eruption like that going on at Eyjafjallajokull -- the term describes a volcano exhibiting a series of explosive bursts -- you'll see explosions called Plinian events, after the historian Pliny who described the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Beneath a stunning sky courtesy of the Northern Lights, Iceland's erupting volcano continues to belch smoke and lava. These events are essentially explosive releases of gas. "You have volcanic gases that are held by the magma as it rises toward the surface. Eventually you get to the point where the gases separate from the magma, like popping the top from a soda bottle.
While rarely captured this well on film, they're not uncommon, according to vulcanologist Jim Quick, associate vice president for research and dean of grad studies at Southern Methodist University. Quick was coordinator of the volcano hazards program with the USGS, and says he's seen shockwaves like this before himself -- in person.
"We were standing on the slopes of Anatahan in the Marianas Islands," he explains, putting a series of monitoring stations around the remote Pacific island. "There were a series of these explosions hurling giant boulders above the rim. And before you could feel the shockwave, you'd see it as a series of rainbow-like structures just like this.