Icelandic volcano in Vatnajökull erupts

 

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Eyjafjallajökull#mediaviewer/File:Eyjafjallajökull_major_eruption_2_20100420.jpg
The second 2010 eruption in Eyjafjallajökull seen from Fljótshlíð at night. (David Karnå/Wikimedia Commons)

Our Icelandic colleagues have just contacted us. Ásdís Jónsdóttir writes “Just a note to tell you that an eruption has begun in Vatnajökull – it is under the outlet of Dyngjujökull. It started about half an hour ago (at quarter past two p.m.). They are evacuating areas to the north of the glacier (they were partly evacuated earlier).”   Gísli Pálsson adds “ It’s now maximum alert, limited air travel around.”

code redThe Icelandic Meteorological Office ha upgraded the aviation alert to red: “Eruption is imminent or in progress – significant emission of ash into atmosphere likely.”

Their most recent report indicates that lava has emerged under the glacier, but that the future progress of this event is still unknown: They list six points (From http://en.vedur.is/earthquakes-and-volcanism/articles/nr/2947)

  • A small lava-eruption has been detected under the Dyngjujökull glacier.
  • The Icelandic Coast Guard airplane TF-SIF is flying over the area with representatives from the Civil Protection and experts from the Icelandic Met Office and the Institute of Earth Sciences. Data from the equipment on board is expected later today.
  • Data from radars and web-cameras is being received, showing no signs of changes at the surface.
  • The estimate is that 150-400 meters of ice is above the area.
  • The aviation color code for the Bárðarbunga volcano has been changed from orange to red.
  • Some minutes ago (14:04), an earthquake occurred, estimated 4.5 in magnitude.
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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)
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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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Walking to a place where “the mountains are weeping”

The author by the edge of the melting glacier. (Gísli Pálsson)
The author, Gísli Pálsson, by the edge of the melting glacier. (Gísli Pálsson)

Having rested during the night we embark on a walk to Drangajökull. Unlike other Icelandic glaciers, it does not reach up to the high mountainous interior of the island. It is, nevertheless, impressive and has a history of its own. Centuries ago, local peasants and fishers would travel across it along specific routes, transporting driftwood and other goods, telling news, and spreading gossip.

We spot the glacier from the main road by the coast. Part of it stretches like a “tongue” (jökultunga in Icelandic) down towards the valley below it, as if it is making fun of us. We are not expecting a long walk, and we only carry a bottle of water and some fruit in our rucksacks but are equipped with solid mountain shoes that are well broken in. Walking on them feels like driving a caterpillar, smoothly plying the rough landscape of gravel, rocks, creeks, and wetlands. I have had my shoes for years now and I keep saying that they will probably outlive their owner. Nonetheless, I know that this is risky walk. If anything happens we are in trouble, since we are in one of the most remote areas of the island, without cell phone service.

Approaching Drangjökull, across wetlands and rocky landscape. (Gísli Pálsson)
Approaching Drangjökull, across wetlands and rocky landscape. (Gísli Pálsson)

Our only ambition is only to get to the edge if glacier. Walking on it would be difficult, and we don’t have the necessary expertise on potential routes and dangers. At the beginning of the walk, at the wide opening of the valley, we sense a gentle summer breeze against our faces. The air seems trapped in the valley, warmed by occasional sunshine. The scene feels still, almost silent. Occasionally, we can hear the song of birds.

As we get closer to the glacier, the narrowing valley begins to feel different. We next encounter the chilly air descending from the glacier. It is pleasant, though, as it cools us on the strenuous walk. The soundscape is changing fast, as if heavy speakers were blasting from everywhere with multiple echoes from the mountains. There is water running from all sides, gushing through the snow cap and from under the glacier. The only way for us to communicate is by shouting. Every now and then we have to cross small creeks, walking on stones or jumping across. We manage to avoid the biggest streams that come from the glacier itself. When we turn to look behind us, we see that they seem to add a brownish color to the ocean, visible behind us on the coast.

Subterranean waterfalls gushing through the ice. (Gísli Pálsson)
Subterranean waterfalls gushing through the ice. (Gísli Pálsson)

Along the way to the glacier we meet a few people on journeys like our own. There is a young couple from Switzerland. This is their second visit to the glacier in two years. Another couple, from Germany, had been on this route three years ago. This sounds like a pilgrimage and I wonder what it is that repeatedly brings people all this way. Ironically, none of us, the four Icelanders, has been here before.

A little before we reach the glacier, the heel on one of my shoes gets loose. For a while it follows me like an Achilles heel, with repeated nods or reminders on my foot. The walk turns out to take much more time than we expected. We seem to be getting closer, but will we ever reach the glacier? Getting there is supposed to take about two hours and we are beginning to feel fatigued. I am bemused that, after all, I have outlived my shoes, but the damaged sole poses a serious problem in this terrain. Luckily, I manage to tie the loose heel to the rest of the shoe with its long lace.

One of my travel companions, Helgi Bernódusson, under glacier. Note the different layers of snow and soil in the background. (Gísli Pálsson)
One of my travel companions, Helgi Bernódusson, under glacier. Note the different layers of snow and soil in the background. (Gísli Pálsson)

When we reach the glacier, we sit under it for some minutes, close to a large gap, something like a cave carved into the glacier. It is time to rest. The roaring sound of flowing water and the feel of ice-cool air are everywhere. We wonder what glaciers might have meant to medieval Icelanders and what impact global warming is heaving in places like this one. Some of the cave walls show curious layers or strata. Are these a kind of human narrative, carved in rocks, gravel, and ice? How much of what we are experiencing is informed by the dramatic events of the Anthropocene, when human forces finally had an effect on nature? Perhaps these are the some of the concerns that increasingly take people on journeys to glaciers, whether they are people like ourselves who are traveling within our own country, or others who have undertaken the greater effort to cross an ocean to arrive at this spot. On top of the pleasures of challenging walks and of outliving one’s shoes.

A "weeping" mountain in mid-summer. (Gísli Pálsson)
A “weeping” mountain in mid-summer. (Gísli Pálsson)

This guest post was written by Gísli Pálsson of the University of Iceland. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

 

 

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