Iceland volcano Bardarbunga rumbling threatens air travel

Thousands of small intense earthquakes are rocking Iceland amid concerns that one of the country's volcanoes may be close to erupting, putting airlines on alert.

Island nation has elevated its aviation alert to orange for first time since Eyjafjallajokull erupted

When Eyjafjallajokull erupted in 2010, it brought the airline industry to a halt. Now, another Icelandic volcano is threatening to do the same, experts warn. (Arni Saeberg/Reuters)

The world's airline industry is on alert after Icelandic authorities have raised the alarm over a sudden flurry of small earthquakes that could cause one of the country's largest volcanoes to erupt.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office warned Tuesday it has detected more than 3,000 minor earthquakes since Saturday along a fault line in the country's centre.

This image from the Icelandic Meteorological Office shows a sudden burst of seismic activity underneath one of the country's fault lines. (Icelandic Met Office)

Much of the activity is clustered around Bardarbunga — a subglacial stratovolcano under Iceland's largest glacier. "Several of these events were larger than magnitude 3," the office warns, with one touching 4.5 on the Richter scale — the strongest in that region since 1996 — although none has been that strong in the past 24 hours.

Although seismic activity in Iceland is routine, the sudden increase in number and intensity has volcanologists worried, because the last time similar activity was seen was in April 2010, when Eyjafjallajokull erupted and the plume of ash and smoke grounded transatlantic air travel for the better part of a month.

Seismologists say magma is moving horizontally, not yet vertically, and "no signs of migration towards the surface or any other signs of imminent or ongoing volcanic activity have been detected so far."

However, the aviation alert level has been raised to the second-most severe level as a precaution.

"Presently there are no signs of eruption, but it cannot be excluded that the current activity will result in an explosive subglacial eruption, leading to an outburst flood … and ash emission," the office said.

With files from The Associated Press