Photo from www.Icelandmag.com
Bárðarbunga (bowr-thar-buhn-ga), one of Iceland’s most productive volcanoes, began an eruption in late August and has not stopped yet (4th week of October). Since the lava arrived on the earth’s surface through a crack in an old lava field called Holuhraun (ho-lu-hroin), it is often called the Holuhraun eruption. Bárðarbunga has a large crater deep under Iceland’s biggest ice cap and fissure fields running both north and south. It has erupted in both directions in the past, but it is far from populated areas so its history is better known through modern scientific studies than eyewitness accounts.
The current eruption shows up occasionally in the US news media and internet commentary, but unfortunately the information there is not always reliable. You can probably trust that photographs labeled as images of Bárðarbunga are showing the correct volcano. But if you want more information, your best bet is either the English version of an Icelandic website or a blog. (If most of the words on a webpage are Icelandic, look for the word ´’English,’’ or the little Union Jack flag at the top of the page.)
For the basic official information, visit www.vedur.is. It is the Icelandic Meteorological Office´s website and has a daily report of Bárðarbunga´s seismic and eruptive activity starting on August 16. You may have learned elsewhere that the eruption began on Friday, August 29. I have seen the date given as August 31, too, but the scientists reported ´a small fissure eruption (600 m/.4 mi long) on an old fissure in the Holuhraun lava field’ on August 29. They did report an explosive eruption on August 31, but one shouldn´t need lava fountains rising hundreds of meters or feet into the air to recognize an eruption!
Reading the daily reports made me wonder how the geologists in the field knew that this would really be an eruption before it happened. Yes, there was lots of seismic activity and earthquakes were occurring in both the big caldera beside Iceland´s second highest mountain and 40 km/25 mi to the northeast, under the Dyngjajökull (din-gya-yoe-koetl) outlet glacier. Geologists have been warning about imminent eruptions, based on seismic activity as long as I have been aware of active volcanoes. How has this one been different? It is true that the distance between the two sets of tremors kept increasing, with the northerly set working its way out from under the edge of Dyngjajökull´s ice. When the eruption started on August 29, it was well north of the glacier. Lava appeared and then some steam.
And what makes me think they knew it was coming? The activity log provided on http://www.vedur.is starts with the August 16 reports. The first report says Bárðarbunga´s very large caldera (11 km/7 mi wide) is covered with ice 850 m/2800 ft thick and could erupt at any time – and anywhere up to 100 km/62 mi away. The very next day they reported the installation of a permanent seismic station on Dyngjajökull, at one of two sites in the area geologists had been testing since January. Were they just lucky, or did they somehow know that the current earthquake swarm would lead to an eruption?
The weather website provides links to other official websites too, in case you are interested in road closures or health hazards. Iceland has lots of international visitors, so they want to get the word out that the area is considered the most dangerous in Iceland right now, and they would like non-scientists to stay away. The Icelandic Directorate of Health is taking the health hazards of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the eruption clouds seriously too. They warn anyone who feels their breathing affected by the air pollutant to stay indoors, close their windows, and turn off their air-conditioning and keep up the heat keep the SO2 outside. With the SO2 output now measuring 35,000 tons per day, scientists working near the eruption are required to wear gas masks and always keep gas monitors tracking their exposure. Health officials provide everyone with daily warnings of the direction of the emission cloud. With two-thirds of the country´s population living in the Reykjavík area, public media seems to pay more attention when the wind is blowing toward the southwest.
But those are only the official government reports. There are other perspectives available: RUV, Iceland´s big television broadcaster, provides some news highlights on their website, www.RUV.is, too. That´s where I learned that some curious Icelanders ignored the road closure warnings, at least before the first snow arrived in late September. The TV news reported on September 21 that authorities had found six new off-road trails into the closed area and arrested some jeep drivers and their passengers. They reminded people that the gas emissions from the eruption were killing birds in the area and weren´t healthy for humans either. About a week later RUV´s photos of the eruptions featured snow in the foreground. Northeast Iceland was blanketed with snow, and not just on the mountain tops. As part of their warning to trespassers, the Civil Protection Service announced that they are prepared to evacuate the 20 – 30 scientists working near the eruption, but cannot guarantee their ability to get many more people out of the area in an emergency. Similar newspaper reports are available at www.Mbl.is/frettir. This is the website of Morgunbladið (mor-guhn-bla-dith, The Morning Paper). Click on ‘‘English‘‘ at the top of the page.
There are some serious volcano bloggers out there, too. My current favorite is www.dailykos.com/blog/rei. The writer apparently lives somewhere in rural Iceland and brings together official data, Icelandic news reports and photographs, and mixes in her personal experiences. She was seriously bothered by ‘‘the Mist“ [volcanic haze] while working on her ‘‘crate‘‘ [old car, I assume] last week, but the wind has shifted and her views are no longer tinged blue – the sulfur dioxide was going in a different direction the last time she posted. She also discusses the subsidence of Bárðabunga´s main crater and different interpretions of what it means.
Another interesting blog for English readers is www.volcanocafe.wordpress. com. Its recent postings include a photographer´s journal of his authorized visit to the eruption area. That website has also discussed the ranking of this event among Iceland´s historic eruptions and the world´s. (I will discuss this more in another post.)
If I could read Icelandic, I would spend time following Haraldur Sigurðsson´s (Har-al-dur Si-gurths-sohn) blog on www.blog.is. He used to teach geology at the University of Rhode Island and founded an interesting volcano museum in the small town of Stykkishólmur (stik-kis-hole-mur) in west Iceland. He has recently been quoted as saying this eruption will end in March – based on the subsidence rate in Bárðarbunga´s central crater. Unfortunately, neither Google translator nor I are not up to the job when it comes to reading technical Icelandic.