Visualizing Iceland’s volcanos

The first fissure that opened on Fimmvörðuháls, as seen from Austurgígar in 2010. (David Karnå/Wikimedia Commons)
The first fissure that opened on Fimmvörðuháls, as seen from Austurgígar in 2010. (David Karnå/Wikimedia Commons)

There are few sights in nature as impressive as a fiery volcanic eruption. GlacierHub has featured many photos and stories from Iceland’s recent volcanic eruptions, and another useful way of understanding some of the more intangible aspects of volcanoes is through data visualization.

Each day, the Icelandic Met Office assigns warning levels to the country's volcanos. The gif shows the Bárðarbunga volcano's warning levels since mid-August.
Each day, the Icelandic Met Office assigns warning levels to the country’s volcanos. The gif shows the Bárðarbunga volcano’s warning levels since mid-August.

One of the hot spots (if you’ll excuse the pun) in Iceland is the Bárðarbunga volcano near the center of the country. Each day, the Icelandic Met Office updates the aviation warning color for all of Iceland’s volcanoes. Green means everything is normal, red means an eruption is immanent and air travel must be grounded. Bárðarbunga has been “forever orange” for weeks now, even as other eruptions have come and gone. The gif shows the daily warning progression of Bárðarbunga and you can see just how the volcano has been at “heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption.”

current volcano warnings

There are more concrete ways to visualize the eruption. We’ve posted a picture to our Twitter feed comparing the lava height to the Statue of Liberty. The University of Iceland overlayed a lava flow onto a map of the area. There are plenty of GPS data maps out there. Iceland Magazine helpfully related the lava flow to Manhattanites by showing it covers an area three times the size of Central Park.

Iceland children's singer Elska posted this drawing about the Bárðarbunga eruption. (source: @islandofelska/Twitter)
Iceland children’s singer Elska posted this drawing about the Bárðarbunga eruption. (source: @islandofelska/Twitter)

Map overlays, size comparisons and seismic graphs are all well and good, but what if you’re a budding volcanologist? Elska is an Icelandic pop singer who makes music for children and families. In late August, she posted a cartoon drawing explaining the eruption to children, which included, among other things, anthropomorphized magma moving closer to the surface and a handy pronunciation of Bárðarbunga (hint: say baur-thar-boun-ga).

We’ll post more graphical representations of the Iceland eruptions to our Twitter feed, @GlacierHub, as we find them.

Crevasses have formed on Iceland glaciers

View from reconnaissance flight. (Morgenbladid Reykjavik)
View from reconnaissance flight. (Morgenbladid Reykjavik)

In the last two days, there have been significant changes in the glaciers and volcanoes in Iceland. There has not yet been an eruption, but the melting of ice indicates that additional heat is reaching the surface. The pattern of earthquakes has also shifted.

Scientists from the Icelandic Meteorological Office and the Institute of Earth Sciences, together with representatives of the Civil Protection in Iceland, met today to discuss the on-going unrest at the Bárðarbunga volcano. A flight over Bárðarbunga revealed large crevasses, totaling about 5 kilometers in length. These crevasses are probably the result of melting at the bottom of the glacier, about 500 meters below the surface. And that melting, in turn, stemmed from heating at the base as magma rose, or even came into direct contact with the ice. It is possible that the extensive earthquake activity also contributed to the crevasses. Instruments reveal that a lake located beneath Grímsvötn Glacier has risen about 5-10 meters, another sign of melting. Future events will help clarify the role of these different processes.

Glacier crevasses (Tobias Duerig/University of Iceland)
Glacier crevasses (Tobias Duerig/University of Iceland)

The pattern of earthquakes reveal that magma has been moving to the northeast from Bárðarbunga, pushing ahead through a dike (an underground fissure). Seismic activity is increasing around the Askja volcano, and GPS measurements show that the surface is being pushed upward there. Aksja is located in the rainshadow of other mountains. Since it receives less snow, it does not have a glacier on its summit.

lake at summit caldera in Askja  source  Iceland Review
Lake at summit caldera in Askja. (Iceland Review)

The earthquake map shows a line of activity stretching Bárðarbunga from to the northeast. The green stars are the quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater; the group to the upper right in the set are close to Askja. The most recent quakes—indicated in red—are also in that section.

recent quakes

As a result, the aviation warning code for Askja has been elevated from green to yellow, so there are now warnings for two volcanoes in the area. The Department of Civil Protection has notified nearby residents of the increased risk of flood, and organized community meetings to discuss possible responses.

current volcano warnings