Will An Icelandic Volcano Erupt Under A Glacier In 2015?

Lava at Bardarbunga and volcanic gasses (Photo: Ragnar Axelsson/ Morgnebladid)
Lava at Bardarbunga and volcanic gasses (Photo: Ragnar Axelsson/ Morgnebladid)

A group of well-placed observers have warned the world about the possibility of a major volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2015. Steen Jakobsen, the chief economist of the Danish trading and investment firm Saxo Bank, and the bank’s strategy team have issued their “Outrageous Predictions” for the coming year.

They state that these predictions are “independent calls on events that can upset global markets or politics. They are strategic in nature rather than an exercise in getting everything right, while our aim is to encourage alternative thinking.” An eruption of the Barðarbunga volcano could send a cloud of ash and noxious gasses that would threaten to block incoming solar radiation and cause crop failures across Europe, leading to rising food prices and political unrest.

A Land Rover crossing the lava field. (Photo: Arni Saeberg/Morgenbladid)
A Land Rover crossing the lava field. (Photo: Arni Saeberg/Morgenbladid)

Even if the ultimate consequences of the eruption were not so severe, the fear of poor harvests could drive food prices skyward and create severe economic and political disruptions. Saxo Bank mentioned other possible threats in 2015, including a housing market crash in the UK, Japanese inflation reaching 5 percent, a spike in cacao prices that would make chocolate much more expensive, and the resignation of Mario Draghi, the current head of the European Central Bank.

It might seem that these predictions are merely an effort of Saxo Bank to use improbable disaster scenarios to garner public attention during the news lull over the holiday season. But their track record is better than such a view would suggest. One of their predictions for 2014, “Brent crude drops to USD 80/barrel as producers fail to respond” came true, when oil prices fell below that benchmark on November 13 of that year. In 2011, three of Saxo Bank’s ten predictions proved to be correct: the yield on the U.S. 30-year Treasury bills fell below 3 percent, crude oil prices rose above $100 and then fell, and the price of gold surged past $1,800 an ounce. They did well with gold in 2013 as well, when the price of the metal, which had been rising steadily for more than a decade, tumbled and in December passed below $1,200 an ounce, as they predicted.

Moreover, volcanoes can indeed emit enough ash to block solar radiation and cause crop failures. The 1783-84 eruption of Laki in Iceland led to low yields in France and other parts of Europe and was, as Saxo Bank suggested, a contributing factor to the French Revolution in 1789. The 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia caused food shortages in Europe and North America, and probably in Asia as well.

Volcanic gasses over Icelandic highlands. (Photo: Ragnar Axelsson/Morgenbladid)
Volcanic gasses over Icelandic highlands. (Photo: Ragnar Axelsson/Morgenbladid)

However, the Barðarbunga volcano and the associated Holuhraun lava field have been behaving in a fairly calm manner. Indeed, the Icelandic volcanologist Páll Einars­son has termed it a “peaceful eruption,” adding that, “it just keeps go­ing day af­ter day with lit­tle changes.” There are many signs of this orderly behavior. The movement of magma through subterranean passages shakes the earth in a steady rhythm, with several quakes reaching 5 on the Richter scale every month and many more less powerful ones. The volcanic caldera continues to subside, as magma flows away to new areas, where it can emerge. The fissures keeps on issuing significant amounts of lava. Holuhraun is reaching an area of 80 square kilometers, about the size of the island of Manhattan, and the volume of lava is more than a cubic kilometer. Fortunately, the lava has been moving to the north and east, away from the major glaciers, particularly Vatnajökull.

Current sulfur dioxide observations in Iceland (red=present, green=absent) (Source: Icelandic Environmental Agency)
Current sulfur dioxide observations in Iceland (Red = present, Green = absent) (Source: Icelandic Environmental Agency)

Scientists recognize that the future is uncertain. The eruption could taper off, or lava could emerge under glacial ice, it would create explosive bursts of steam, which would send large volume of ash high in the atmosphere and massive floods of meltwater as well. However, major problem for Iceland to date has been the massive releases of sulfur dioxide, a noxious gas that affects different parts of the country as winds shift, sometimes creating health problems, particularly for the elderly and people with respiratory conditions. For the time being, the warning level for an ash cloud is orange rather than the more serious level red. And the Institute of Earth Sciences told its followers on Facebook “We’ll keep an eye on the lava, but… Merry Christmas!” Let us hope that Saxo Bank’s prediction does not come to pass.

Extent of Bardarbunga lava field in mid-December. (Source: Icelandic Meteorological Office)
Extent of Bardarbunga lava field in mid-December. (Source: Icelandic Meteorological Office)
A Christmas greeting from the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland. (Source: DES, University of Iceland/Facebook)
A Christmas greeting from the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland. (Source: DES, University of Iceland/Facebook)

GlacierHub has been covering Barðarbunga extensively since the first signs of possible volcanic activity, during the first eruption, and subsequently.

Roundup: Volcano Drones, Space Glaciers and an Actor’s Fall

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Director of aerial imaging for drone maker DJI, Eric Cheng, and nature photographer Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson were able to fly a Quadcopter mounted GoPro camera into an active eruption in the Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

Read the full story here. For more of GlacierHub’s coverage on the recent Icelandic volcano eruption and the effect on nearby glaciers, click here and here.

 

Jackson Gallagher’s Glacier Fiasco
Actor Jackson Gallagher star of the Australian television soap opera, “Home and Away”, and three other climbers were forced to run for their lives when rocks came falling down above them on top of the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand.

Read the full article on Stuff.co.nz here.

 

Chile’s San Quintín Glacier Viewed from Space
Melting into a lake full of glacier-churned ‘rock flour,’ Chile’s San Quintín glacier can be seen emptying into the Northern Patagonian Ice Field in a recent satellite photo.

See the satellite photos and read more here.

 

 

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.

Photo Friday: A Song of Ice and Fire

We’ve brought you plenty of posts and updates on the earthquakes and eruptions in Iceland over the past few weeks. The Iceland’s Institute of Earth Science recently published even more photos of researchers surveying Bárðarbunga from the air and from the ground from a variety of photographers. We’ve selected some of our favorites, but see the whole set here if you can’t get enough ice and fire.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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The eruption has begun (We mean it this time)

The Icelandic Met Office announced that an eruption began at midnight, local time, at Holuhraun, north of Dyngjujökull. Lava is emerging on the surface, rather than beneath a glacier, so it is directly visible.

Iceland's volcanic eruption as seen from the air. (source: RUV.is)
Iceland’s volcanic eruption as seen from the air. (source: RUV.is)

http://www.ruv.is/frett/video-of-the-holuhraun-eruption

The lava is being emitted from a fissure about 900 meters long, with what the Civil Protection Authority calls “low lava fountains with thin flowing lava.” The lack of ash means that the risk to aviation at present is small. Had the eruption occurred under the ice, there would have been a much larger risk of an ash cloud like the one in 2010 that halted air traffic for six days.

The Icelandic Met Service had briefly raised the warning level at Bárðarbunga to red, but after a few hours brought it back to orange. There is a small area restricted to aviation, but it does not extend even to the regional airport at Akureyri in the north.

(source: ISAVIA)
(source: ISAVIA)

A webcam from the area at Bárðarbunga does not show much activity, though last night the eruption from Dyngjujökull could be seen in the distance.

Iceland's Dyngjujokull erupts (source: RUV.is)
Iceland’s Dyngjujokull erupts (source: RUV.is)

Authorities are continuing to order an evacuation area north of the glacier. The possibility of an outburst flood cannot entirely be ruled out, even though the magma has moved north of the country’s major glaciers to areas of bare rock.

(source: Morgenbladid Reykjavik)
(source: Morgenbladid Reykjavik)

Though we don’t have many dramatic photos to show at this point, we would like to share a cartoon that appeared yesterday, just before the eruption started.  It comes from a producer of children’s music, who lives on a new volcanic island near the main island of Iceland. You can follow her on twitter at @islandofelska.

(source: Elska/Twitter)
(source: Elska/Twitter)

And we would like to send our thanks to Gísli Pálsson, who sent us an email this morning from Reykjavik to alert us about the eruption. You can read his account of a recent visit to a glacier in a non-volcanic part of Iceland here.

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

Iceland earthquakes continue, evacuations begin

Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupting in April 2010, which shut down transatlantic and European air travel. Officials are closely monitoring the situation at Bárðarbunga volcano, which may have a similar eruption. (Wikimedia Commons)
Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupting in April 2010, which shut down transatlantic and European air travel. Officials are closely monitoring the situation at Bárðarbunga volcano, which may have a similar eruption. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the earthquakes continue at Bárðarbunga volcano, under Iceland’s largest glacier, local authorities and residents have become increasingly concerned about the risk of outburst floods, though the warning remains at code orange. They recognize that large quantities of water could rush down river valleys if magma should rise to the surface. As a precautionary measure, residents and tourists have been evacuated from two areas north of the glacier. Icelandic authorities have also prepared contingency plans in case floods threaten major hydroelectric facilities.

Map of road conditions and evacuation routes. (Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration)
Map of road conditions and evacuation routes. (Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration)

Another site reports that a number of farmers have rounded up their sheep and horses, who range freely to forage in the summer and early fall. The animals are confined indoors during the long Icelandic winters, where the farmers must supply them with fodder. The farmers and animals alike do not enjoy an early round-up, but the risk of losing animals to floods or to ash-clouds is too great to dismiss.

There have been many earthquakes in the last two days, since GlacierHub last reported on this situation. The first map below, from the Icelandic Meteorological Office, shows how the quakes are tightly clustered. The second, a visualization by Bæring Gunnar Steinþórsson, shows the quakes in three dimensions. His site, http://baering.github.io/, allows viewers to adjust the angle of view and the period that is covered.

Iceland earthquakes wednesday august 20

Bárðarbunga 3D visualization

As recent reports by Eric Holthaus in Slate and by Dave McGarvie in The Conversation  have discussed, there are a variety of types of floods and explosive ash releases that could occur if lava were released at Bárðarbunga, under a layer of ice that is 400 meters thick. it is unlikely that an eruption would disrupt air traffic as seriously as the 2010 event at Eyjafjallajökull. Holthaus modeled a likely scenario of ash transport, should an eruption occur, which shows that it would pass over major airports, but mentions that fewer flights would probably be disrupted, thanks to better forecasts and more effective regulations.

Possible ash plumes, based on data from NOAA. (Eric Holthaus/Slate)
Possible ash plumes, based on data from NOAA. (Eric Holthaus/Slate)

Nonetheless, as the Icelandic anthropologist Ásdís Jónsdóttir wrote in a recent email, “We have to keep in mind that there have indeed been regular eruptions… in the past.” The twelve hundred years of Iceland’s recorded history and the geological evidence from before that demonstrate the great power of Iceland’s volcanoes and glaciers. For the time being the surface of Bárðarbunga  remains calm, as shown by these photos that Jónsdóttir took on a recent trip.

Iceland's Bárðarbunga volcano in 2009. (Ásdís Jónsdóttir)
Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano in 2009. (Ásdís Jónsdóttir)
Iceland's Bárðarbunga volcano in 2009
Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano in 2009. (Ásdís Jónsdóttir)