Ash from Iceland’s Glacier Volcano Threatens Health of Local Children

The prolonged eruption of the glacier volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010 released 250 million tons of ash (Source: Bjarki Sigursveinsson/Flickr).

The prolonged eruption of the glacier volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010 released 250 million tons of ash, exposing residents to dangerous levels of the substance. The spread of the volcanic dust and ash caused by this event has since raised concerns about the long-term health risks to vulnerable populations. A recent study by Heidrun Hlodversdottir and her co-authors of the physical and mental health of the local children following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano suggests that they were more likely to experience respiratory and anxiety issues than those who were not impacted by the eruption, among other negative effects.

The research, published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, assessed the health impacts of the eruption for a period of three years after the climate event. The authors analyzed both the exposed and non-exposed adult population through questionnaires aimed at examining their children’s and their own perceived health status in 2010, six to nine months after the eruption, as well as three years later.

Hlodversdottir and her co-authors explained in a joint response to GlacierHub that the winds carried the ash across Europe and North Africa, increasing concerns that the eruption could possibly affect the respiratory health of the local population. Precautions for susceptible individuals were issued in Europe by the World Health Organization and national health authorities following the eruption. According to the WHO, health surveillance systems in countries in the WHO European Region detected no exposure of the populations to volcano-related air pollution and no health effects potentially related to volcanic ash following the volcanic eruption, the authors said. However, the south and southeast of Iceland received a great deal of ash and residue during six weeks and several months following the eruption. Thus, the researchers compared data from exposed and non-exposed regions in Iceland. In 2010, they gathered demographic data from each child’s parents and asked questions about property losses. In 2013, those who participated in the study were contacted again for a second evaluation about perceived health status.

In 2010, the study revealed that children who had been exposed to the impacts of the volcano were more prone to respiratory problems, anxiety and worries, headaches, and poor sleep. Gisli Palsson, professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland, told GlacierHub that the latter three might also be related to concerns caused by radical changes in the children’s lives generated by the impact of the volcanic eruption.

In 2010, the study revealed that children exposed to volcanic ash were more prone to respiratory problems, anxiety, headaches and poor sleep (Source: Chris Ford/Flickr).

The authors of the study further indicated to GlacierHub that a threatening, uncontrollable and unpredictable natural event so close to people´s homes is a major stressor. “The ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption damaged property, reduced visibility, delayed transportation, and many inhabitants had to evacuate their homes for a period of time. The continuous ashfall darkened the environment to the point of turning daylight into night, as well as glacier flooding, heavy lightning strikes, loud volcanic sound blasts and lava flows; all impacting the daily life of the exposed residents,” the authors note.

Although the eruption did not result in casualties, these events were stressful enough and caused uncertainty during and after the eruption. These stressors, in addition to the physical effects of ash exposure, may have contributed to the negative impacts on the children’s well-being, they added.

In addition, while the study did not compare gender regarding the continuity of symptoms, the results when analyzed by gender demonstrated that exposed male children had a higher likelihood of experiencing sleep disturbances and headaches than non-exposed male children.

Hlodversdottir and her co-authors indicated that it is important to note that all the measures of children’s health were based on the parents’ reporting. “It is well documented that internalized difficulties such as anxiety symptoms are more prevalent among girls and that boys show more often externalized difficulties,” they said. “It is therefore possible that boys in our study did not express their emotions verbally as much as girls but rather expressed their emotions as physical symptoms, i.e. headaches and sleeping difficulties. It is also possible that the children´s parents interpreted their children´s symptoms and behavior differently instead of the volcano eruption having different effects on gender.”

The results from the evaluation made in 2013 suggested that certain health problems— for example, depression and sleeping disturbances— were still present years after the event. The prevalence of these issues was linked to the gravity of the hazard that children had experienced.

Moreover, the researchers investigated the predictive factors that could cause these symptoms. In this aspect, they found that children who had experienced material damages were at higher risk of mental issues such as anxiety and depression when compared to those who were not exposed to these situations.

The authors indicated to GlacierHub that disasters can generate mental damage to families. For this reason, disaster interventions should focus on assisting people impacted by climate events. There is limited research on the impacts and long-term health effects of volcanic eruptions on children’s health, as well as knowledge on disaster risk populations among youth.

The authors added that there are indications in the literature that the academic environment is a convenient area to inform youth regarding preparedness and possible risks. Furthermore, parents should be advised on how to discuss these issues with their children.

Over 500 million people are located near active volcanoes, and children are the most vulnerable to the impacts of volcanic hazards. For this reason, it is important that governments develop strategies to prevent and reduce possible health issues on vulnerable populations. In addition, there must be more of an effort to continuously assess the health of the most vulnerable populations following a natural hazard. As Hlodversdottir and her co-authors told GlacierHub, “Children are a particularly vulnerable group that needs developmentally appropriate treatments that are evidence-based and affordable. It is therefore of great importance that such service be funded and made available in the long term after natural disasters.”

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Roundup: Tardigrade, Glacier Modeling, and Eyjafjallajökull Eruption

Discovery of a New Water Bear Species

From BioOne: “Glaciers and ice sheets are considered a biome with unique organism assemblages. Tardigrada (water bears) are micrometazoans that play the function of apex consumers on glaciers. Cryoconite samples with the dark-pigmented tardigrade Cryoconicus gen. nov. kaczmareki sp. nov. were collected from four locations on glaciers in China and Kyrgyzstan… A recovery of numerous live individuals from a sample that was frozen for 11 years suggests high survival rates in the natural environment. The ability to withstand low temperatures, combined with dark pigmentation that is hypothesized to protect from intense UV radiation, could explain how the new taxon is able to dwell in an extreme glacial habitat.”

Learn more about the tardigrade population in glaciers here.

An image of a tardigrade (Source: Live Science).

 

Glacier Mass Change and Modeling

From Nature: “Glacier mass loss is a key contributor to sea-level change, slope instability in high-mountain regions, and the changing seasonality and volume of river flow. Understanding the causes, mechanisms and time scales of glacier change is therefore paramount to identifying successful strategies for mitigation and adaptation. Here, we use temperature and precipitation fields from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 output to force a glacier evolution model, quantifying mass responses to future climatic change. We find that contemporary glacier mass is in disequilibrium with the current climate, and 36 ± 8% mass loss is already committed in response to past greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, mitigating future emissions will have only very limited influence on glacier mass change in the twenty-first century.”

Read more about the glacier modeling here.

Image of mountain glacier model (Source: Antarctic Glaciers).

 

Glacierized Volcanoes and the Effect of Eruptions on Health

From NCBI: “More than 500 million people worldwide live within exposure range of an active volcano and children are a vulnerable subgroup of such exposed populations. However, studies on the effects of volcanic eruptions on children’s health beyond the first year are sparse. In 2010, exposed children were more likely than non-exposed children to experience respiratory symptoms… Both genders had an increased risk of symptoms of anxiety/worries but only exposed boys were at increased risk of experiencing headaches and sleep disturbances compared to non-exposed boys. Adverse physical and mental health problems experienced by the children exposed to the eruption seem to persist for up to a three-year period post-disaster. These results underline the importance of appropriate follow-up for children after a natural disaster.”

Find out more about the effects of the eruption in Iceland here.

Image of Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption (Source: Time Magazine).
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Iceland’s fire decimates its ice: Eyjafjallajökull

A new scientific study investigates the interactions between the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull’s lava flow and the overlaying ice cap, revealing previously unknown subglacial lava-ice interactions.

Six years after  the eruption, the volcano is revisited by the author of the study, Björn Oddsson, a geophysicist with Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management. He and his team present the most up-to-date chronology of the events, reverse engineer the heat transfer processes involved, and discover a phenomenon which may invalidate previous studies of “prehistoric subglacial lava fields.”

Satellite image of Iceland in 2010, during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)
Satellite image of Iceland in 2010, during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated)

Eyjafjallajökull (‘jökull’ is Icelandic for ‘glacier’) hit headlines in April 2010, as it spewed 250 million tonnes of ash into the atmosphere. The explosive event shook the West, as it took an unprecedented toll on trans-Atlantic and European travel, disrupting the journeys of an estimated 10 million passengers. It is only known to have erupted four times in the last two millennia.

The first hint that something major was about to happen in 2010 came as a nearby fissure — Fimmvörðuhálsa — to the northeast, began spouting lava in March and April 2010. Just as Fimmvörðuhálsa quieted, a “swarm of earthquakes” rocked the Eyjafjalla range, on April 13. The next day, Eyjafjallajökull started its 39-day eruption.

Over four and a half billion cubic feet (130 million m3) of ice was liquefied and vaporized as six billion gallons of lava spewed forth from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull stratovolcano. Flowing at distances up to 1,640 feet (500 m) each day, the lava poured down the northern slopes of the Eyjafjalla range, nearly halving the mass of the glacier Gígjökull, as it bored a channel underneath the ice.

Oddsson and co-authors Eyjólfur Magnússon and Magnus Gudmundsson have been on the leading edge of Eyjafjallajökull research, developing a comprehensive chronology of the subglacial processes at work in 2010. To complement their timeline, they developed a model demonstrating the probable interactions and volumes involved.

Steam plumes from the caldera of Eyjafjallajökull (Source: Jon Gustafsson)
Steam plumes from the caldera of Eyjafjallajökull (Source: Jon Gustafsson)

The eruption was exceptionally well-documented and studied in real-time by the world-class volcanologists and glaciologists who populate Iceland. Oddsson’s et al. paper relied on a previously uncombined series of datasets (i.e. synthetic aperture radar (SAR), tephra sampling, seismic readings, webcam footage) to develop an holistic model to explain the subglacial formation of the 3.2 km lava field.

In April 2010, magma began to rise to the surface — the “culmination of 18 years of intermittent volcanic unrest,” according to Freysteinn Sigmundsson and colleagues. The first outflow of lava rapidly began undermining the base layers of the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap, which was then around 656 ft (200 m) thick.

Over two billion gallons of meltwater was generated. Dammed by the surrounding glacier and rock, the water pooled within the caldera (a large cauldron-shaped volcanic crater). There, it was rapidly heated, building up the subglacial pressure under Eyjafjallajökull’s ice cap over two hours — mimicking a pressure cooker.

In the early hours of April 14, a “white eruption plume” broke through the overlying ice, ultimately ascending 3.1-6.2 (5-10 km) into the atmosphere. During the first three days of the eruption, a series of vast floods — “hyperconcentrated jökulhlaup[s]” — pulsed from under Gígjökull. The first jökulhlaup completely evacuated within half an hour, at up to 1.45 million gallons (5,500 m3) per second, according to Eyjólfur Magnússon of the University of Iceland.

The outpouring of this vast volume was the first indication of an enormous transfer of energy taking place beneath the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. Oddsson and his team determined that over 45 percent of the heat from the eruption was expended melting the ice, based on inferences of the outflowing steam, tephra, water, and other materials.

Their paper presents a culmination of several decades-worth of research, providing a substantive advance on earlier research. For instance, in 1997 Stephen Matthews’s team estimated mass fluxes in ice, water, and lava based on steam plumes, and in 2002 John Smellie made inferences on the progress of a subglacial eruption on Deception Island, Antarctica. In 2015, Duncan Woodcock and his team provided a theoretical model for the processes, but Oddsson and his colleagues have succeeded in making firmer estimates of heat flux, at a far higher temporal resolution than ever before. It is an evolution of the working group’s 2012 study of Fimmvörðuhálsa, where similar approaches were applied.

Historically, jökulhlaups have directly claimed the lives of only seven Icelanders in the past 600 years. This rate is low, due to the preparedness of local emergency services, as well as the low population density and high level of understanding within the Icelandic population. According to a study led by Magnus Gudmunsson, most fatalities occurred near Grímsvötn — Iceland’s largest subglacial lake, situated in an active volcanic caldera.

Eight-hundred people were evacuated the day before the floodwaters barrelled down the Jökulsá and Markarfljót rivers.

Around 28 percent of the lava breached the northern caldera wall, and escaped under Gígjökull. Over one-and-a-half billion cubic feet (46 million m3) of Gígjökull’s ice mass was liquefied and evaporated as the lava flowed beneath the glacier.

The degradation of Gígjökull (Source: Helgi Arnar Alfreðsson, annotated)
The degradation of Gígjökull (Source: NSIDC (left, right), Helgi Arnar Alfredsson (center), annotated)

As the lava was wasting the ice, it was being quenched by the ensuing meltwater. Four percent of the heat was lost to this water. A “lava crust” formed rapidly, insulating the rest of the lava, and preserving a high core temperature of over 1,832°F (1,000°C).  This encrusted lava continued to flow nearly two miles (3.2 km) from the summit, underneath Gígjökull, melting the overlaying ice as it descended over the following two weeks.

Oddsson’s team explored the resultant lava field, characterised by a “rough, jagged and clinkery” surface, in August 2011 and 2012. Two distinct lava morphologies had formed on the northern slopes. The longer lava field extends of 1.6 miles (2.7 km). It formed as the lava was rapidly quenched by its interaction with the ice, and ensuing meltwater. It accounts for 90 percent of the lava which poured out under Gígjökull. A second layer poured out over the top. It formed a distinctly different rock-type as it cooled, as the overlaying ice had melted, and the water had all evaporated, or flowed downriver. Accordingly, the second lava layer cooled more slowly, losing its heat to the air.

This finding is important as it unveils the processes at work in 2010, as well as having implications for studies of “prehistoric subglacial lava fields.” Dr Kate Smith of the University of Exeter commented, “It is possible that lava-ice interaction in prehistoric eruptions has been underestimated,” as the evidence was obscured by successive layers of lava from the same event, which cooled in the air, rather than interacting with ice and meltwater.

Smith noted that this new observation is a “useful contribution to the body of work on volcano-ice interaction.” The investigation has affirmed and updated earlier glaciovolcanic investigations by David Lescinsky and Jonathan Fink of Arizona State University, outline in a seminal piece in 2000. Oddsson’s et al. findings corroborate the processes Lescinsky and Fink described, though their evidence for successive layering ”partly conceal[ing]” the record is a revelation.

This latest publication by Oddsson and his team establishes a comprehensive chronology of subglacial interactions, and reliable calculations of the heat transfer processes during the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. The paper emphasises the value of field observations of volcanic eruptions, especially from ice-capped calderas. It has shone a light on previously little-considered interactions, which has consequences for palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatic reconstructions. Overall, it is a valuable contribution to the ever-growing database of glaciovolcanic events, and emphasises the continued need for investigations of present and historic eruptions.

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Assembling Stories of the 2010 Volcanic Eruption in Iceland

Driving through ash-filled air, using GPS (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)
Driving through ash-filled air, using GPS (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)

Like many other people, I was affected by the eruption of Mt. Eyjafjallajökull six years ago.  I have begun a project which focuses on the mountain, a glacier-covered volcano in southern Iceland, and its dramatic eruption.  I am writing to invite you and others to contribute stories about this event to the project, which is titled Volcanologues.  

The eruption began on 20 March 2010. The interaction of magma with water during the second phase of the eruption, beginning on 14 April, created a plume of volcanic ash that covered large areas of northern Europe, blocking air traffic over most of Europe for six days. About twenty countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic. Approximately ten million people had their travel schedules interrupted without any warning, and had to scramble to adjust their plans.  

Holding volcanic ash (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)
Holding volcanic ash (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)

Eyjafjallajökull and the glacier which covers it have always had a significant presence for me. Not only did some of my ancestors live on a small farm right under the glacier, but also I could see the mountain from Heimaey, the island I was born and raised, as well as more recently from my summer home in southern Iceland.

In Reykjavik, I followed news on the levels of toxic gases which were emitted, and I measured the amount of ash that fell by my house. I also had to cancel a trip for a major conference in Poland. Most importantly, later on I was stranded in Norway due to one of the last clouds of volcanic ash. The trip home, which ordinarily would require  only three hours, lasted 26 hours–a strange experience, one that remained in my mind longer than I anticipated.

Caring for a sheep affected by the eruption (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)
Caring for a sheep affected by the eruption (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)

During the months following the eruption, I kept meeting many people who described similar experiences, often in far more dramatic terms than I had used in speaking to my family and friends. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to collect eruption stories. I hesitated, perhaps because I somehow felt guilty that a volcano in my backyard was causing all these troubles! Recently, however, such a project has appealed to me, partly because I have been organizing a research project, “Domesticating Volcanoes” at the Center for Advanced Study in Oslo and partly because I have been developing the notion of “geosociality,” along with anthropologist Heather Anne Swanson, focusing on the commingling of humans and the earth “itself.”

Horses facing the volcanic ash-cloud (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)
Horses facing the volcanic ash-cloud (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)

Hosted at the University of Iceland, the Volcanologues project will document the complex impacts of the eruption on people from different parts of the world. Anyone who has a story to tell is inviteded to share their experience. Collectively, these stories will illuminate personal dramas in the wake of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, providing an engaging window into unprecedented natural events and their aftermaths.

I ask those who are interested in contributing to submit a short essay, possibly along with a related image (a photo, a drawing, or a document), to volcanologues2010@gmail.com. The average text should be between 500 and 1000 words. It should include a title, name and email address of the author, and a statement of consent: “I hereby grant Gisli Palsson permission to publish my essay on his Volcanologues website and in a printed collection of essays.”

I would like to thank my friend Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson for the permission to use his striking photographs of the eruption. His work can be viewed at Arctic Images.

Walking through the freshly fallen ash (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)
Walking through the freshly fallen ash (source: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson)
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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.
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