The risk of an exploding glacier is heating up in Iceland

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)

Will lava soon hit glacier ice, unleashing an explosion that would spew ash and steam high in the atmosphere? The Icelandic Meteorology Office (IMO) thinks that the probability of such an event in their country has increased. Through Saturday 16 August the risk level had been at code green– a “background, non-eruptive state.” The IMO has upgraded the risk twice in the last two days, on Sunday to code yellow, and earlier today, Monday, to code orange, indicating that a “volcano shows heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption.”

The responsibility for monitoring such risks falls to the IMO because sub-glacial volcanic eruptions can create vast plumes of material that reach into the atmosphere. This phenomenon is critical for Iceland because of its location on the paths of many flights between western Europe and the East Coast of the US. When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in this manner in April 2010, flights were cancelled for six days, affecting ten million passengers. The lava was released under a thick cap of glacier, creating a vast plume of ash and steam that was propelled up to an elevation of 9,000 meters. The resulting cloud, presenting a great threat to airplanes, was carried long distances by the jet stream. It covered Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Britain and the Netherlands, as well as large portions of Finland and Germany, and reached far into Russia. On a more local scale, residents and domestic animals had to remain inside for a number of days, and the rivers in the region were flooded with hot water. The ash-fall covered fields and pastures, creating problems for farmers.

volcano warning orange

The IMO has been monitoring Bárðarbunga, a volcano more than 2000 meters in elevation, located beneath Vatnajökull, the country’s largest glacier. Since early June, they have observed that four GPS stations in the area have shown upward movement in a direction away from the volcano. This movement suggests that a mass of magma (molten rock beneath the earth’s surface) has been expanding upward, closer to the earth’s surface, and displacing the GPS stations.

Ash clouds emminating from volcano blasts are highly dangerous for jet engines. (Aviation Safety Institute)
Ash clouds emminating from volcano blasts are highly dangerous for jet engines. (Aviation Safety Institute)

The IMO have been particularly concerned by what they call a “seismic swarm.” (If you were wondering how to say that in Icelandic, the answer is “skjalftahrina.”) This term, in either language, refers to a cluster of earthquakes. This recent swarm began early Saturday morning and has continued to the present. More than 1400 earthquakes have been recorded, some small, some medium-sized, concentrated near the faults associated with the volcano. These swarms constitute a second line of evidence that an eruption may occur, since such earthquakes can be created by pools of magma as they move upward. The earthquakes in the last 24 hours have been more numerous, more powerful, and closer to the surface—all pointing to an increased likelihood of eruption.

Bardarbunga 17-08-2014 from Atlantsflug – Iceland on Vimeo.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office is monitoring the situation closely. It is coordinating with the local civil defense authority, which has closed roads because of flood risks, and with the International Civil Aviation Organization as well. You can check out a video taken by a brave pilot who flew his plane over the volcano on Sunday. And you can follow this situation at the IMO (http://en.vedur.is/). By the way, the Icelandic word for “weather” is easy for English-speakers—it’s “veður,” pronounced “vethur.”

Read a story on GlacierHub about an Icelandic glacier that does not have a volcano under it, but presents other dangers.

Detail of earthquake activity on Monday, August 18 with detail of glacier.
Detail of earthquake activity on Monday, August 18 with detail of glacier.