Ash emissions end at Grímsvötn as European airspace reopens

As quickly as it started, the eruption at Grímsvötn seems to be ending. Ash emissions from the volcano ceased early this morning (Iceland time) and now only steam plumes remain at the crater of Grímsvötn (see below). Even yesterday, the plume had dropped below 5 km (from a previous high of 20 km) as the magma discharge rates dropped dramatically (compare the two images below). The Prime Minister of Iceland has said that her country has moved onto the "clean up" phase of the eruption as all signs, such as seismic tremor, suggest that this phase of the eruption is over. You can see some video of the waning stages of the eruption where Surtseyan explosions dominated the activity, thanks to the magma intruding the water in the crater at much lower discharge rates (thus only forming small, < 1 km plumes).

May 25, 2011 (Plume height = 100 meters)

May 21, 2011 (plume height = 20 km)

(top) The weak steam and ash plume seen at the crater of Grímsvötn on May 25, 2011. Note the small lake under the plume that fills the crater and the weak "rooster tails" typical of a Surtseyan eruption. Click here to see original. (bottom) The ash plume seen on May 21, 2011. Note the difference in size only 4 days after the eruption started.

The Grímsvötn ash itself is still swirling over Iceland, Europe and the North Atlantic, spreading over 800 km from the volcano. Even if Ryanair president Michael O'Leary doesn't believe it exists, the NASA Earth Observatory released an image of the ash over the region. The ash was thick enough to be seen on cars and windows in Norway. However, it should begin to clear rapidly as the eruption wanes. At its height, airports as far afield as Germany were closed, but the air traffic disruptions will likely be over in the next day or so. Even with such a limited ash hazard, there was still a lot of controversy over the closure, with Ryanair trying to use stunts to get the ban lifted, but European officials still played the ash cautiously (which rightly they should). If you'd like to see a retrospective (already) of the ash in Iceland itself, check out this video (Icelandic) from Visir, but thankfully the air is beginning to clear in Iceland as well.

It does amaze me that even with the eruption of Grímsvötn waning, there are some news agencies already fear-mongering about the next Icelandic eruption (German). Spiegel Online claims that inflation at Hekla is a direct sign that it will soon have a larger eruption, even though inflation is common at many volcanoes. It is inevitable that another eruption will occur in Iceland, likely not in the distant future, but this sort of sensationalism that every Icelandic volcano is posed to explode is just useless (and dangerous).

If you want to see more of the great images and videos that captured the eruption, check out some of these:

  • Animated GIF from weather satellite images of the Grímsvötn ash plume punching through the clouds. What amazes me most in this is the "rippling" you can see in the atmosphere as the ash plume appears and the perfect "umbrella" shape to the plume.
  • You can see just how big the initial plume was relative to the size of Iceland in the layered NASA MODIS image and a Google Earth map of Iceland (see below).
  • De Spiegel, when not fear mongering, does have a great gallery of images from the eruption as well.
  • The May 21-22 plume from Grímsvötn as seen from space superimposed on a Google Earth map of Iceland.

    Check out all the posts on the Grímsvötn eruption to find all the details:

  • May 21
  • May 21 Update
  • May 22
  • May 23
  • May 24
  • {Special thanks to all Eruptions readers for images and links in this post.}

    Top left: The initial ash plume from Grímsvötn seen on May 21, 2011 (click on the image to see original). Compare the size of this plume to the current plume shown at the top of the page. Image by Agust Gudbjornsson.


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    • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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