Tag Archives: Iceland’s volcanoes



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.

Happy reading!

Iceland (and Eyjafjallajökull) at the movies



A friend told me that gorgeous Icelandic scenery is featured in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, so I went to see the film as soon as I could.
She was right! The very first Icelandic scene was on the highway southwest of Stykkishólmur, on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. I took a snapshot of Kirkjufell, the symmetrical hill that appears early in the Icelandic sequence, the last time I was in that area.
After that, the Walter Mitty character (Ben Stiller) executes a trade with a trio of Icelandic lads for a skateboard, and zooms off down the highway. Although seeming to understand English, the kids discussed the deal in Icelandic. I didn´t quite catch what they said, but I doubted that the English subtitles really captured their dialogue. Then their father called from the car. He very clearly said‚‘‘Núna! Núna! Núna!‘‘ which meant ‚‘‘Right Now!‘‘ and they went running.
The Icelandic scenery that the movie´s lead character (anti-hero?) flew past on the newly acquired skateboard could serve as tourist board marketing footage for a section of Iceland. Then he skates past a very large pipeline – which in Iceland carries very hot water from a geothermal plant or well – to a city hot water system. I don´t remember seeing such a pipeline near Stykkishólmur (the small town that is mentioned in the film script), but I have seen them outside of Reykjavik.
So where does Eyjafjallajökull come in? Mitty is pursuing a globetrotting photographer in search of a particular photo for the last print cover of Life Magazine. The trail led from New York to Greenland to Iceland. After gaining the skateboard he meets a man who cannot help him – but soon returns – too excited to speak English: ‘‘Eldgos!‘‘ he shouts.
Few in the theater realize he is warning of a volcanic eruption, and the subtitle gives little information. But suddenly a very large, very dark cloud appears above the village buildings, Mitty hops into the moving car and they race off, trying to outrun the volcanic cloud.
Eyjafjallajökull – nicknamed E15 for non-Icelandic speakers – is located on the other side of the country from the west coast town Mitty nominally arrived in from Greenland. The volcano´s 2010 eruption may still be in viewers´visual memories of the TV news that featured it. Big dark ash clouds were certainly part of its reality!
I have since learned that all of the international footage in the movie was filmed in Iceland. The island nation has the landscape to represent a village in Greenland, itself, and the mountains of Afghanistan – and showed off its splendor in this film. I don´t think that we actually saw any of Eyjafjallajökull´s glacier or volcanic landscape, but the cloud did a good job of representing the most memorable aspect of its spring 2010 eruption.

My Favorite Volcanologist

It shouldn’t be completely surprising that someone writing a book about Iceland´s volcanoes could develop a fan relationship with a particular volcanologist.  His name is Sigurður Þórarinsson (Seh-gur-thur Thor-ar-in-sohn), or Siggi to his friends.  He lived from 1912 – 1983, so I never had an opportunity to meet him.  But his enthusiasm for all aspects of Icelandic geology, history and culture is so very clearly and beautifully communicated in his many writings that I have appreciated him from my initial contact.

He first appeared in my research as the author of several readable books on the histories of several active volcanoes: Hekla, Askja and Surtsey.  Then I found the text of two lectures that he had presented in London in the 1950s and an article in the UNESCO Courier in the 1970s.  Both presented combinations of scientific information and folk lore about Iceland´s dramatic landscape and the people who live in it.

When I tried to track his career, I learned that he studied at the University of Copenhagen in 1931-32 and the University of Stockholm later in the 1930s, initially focusing his field research on glaciers. At that time the University of Iceland (founded in 1911) offered few if any classes in the earth sciences. This undoubtedly encouraged Sigurður´s studies in the other Scandinavian universities.

In 1939 he participated in the important archaeological dig at Þjorsádalur in south central Iceland and developed a method for identifying the age of ash layers and tested his theories there.  He then spent the World War II period in neutral Sweden, refined his dating system as tephrochronology methodology and earned his doctorate degree at the University of Stockholm in 1944 with a thesis on that subject. The tephro-chronology techniques that he developed as a graduate student provided an important tool for volcanologists trying to map the impact range of individual volcanoes.

He returned to Iceland in 1945, becoming head of the geographical/ geological division of the Museum of Natural History in Reykjavík in 1947. In 1968 he became Professor of Geography and Geology at the University of Iceland. He served there until his retirement in 1982. While at the Museum of Natural History he also spent time as a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, and sponsored a series of British university research expeditions to the Vatnajökull ice cap in the 1950s.

The British faculty and students who came to study the Vatnajökull glaciers considered their Icelandic professor a geologist who specialized in glaciers. Some of his research in the 1950s focused on jökulhlaups, the glacial floods that often result from volcanic eruptions under glaciers. Grímsvötn and Öræfajökull were the two sub-glacial volcanoes he focused on at Vatnajökull.

In the late 1950´s he became an active conservationist, concerned about the future of Iceland’s unique Nature.  He became a member of the Board of the Icelandic Council of Nature Conservation in 1956, the same year that Iceland adopted its first national conservation legislation.  In the 1960s he actively campaigned for establish-ment of Skaftafell National Park.  Founded in 1967, this was to be Iceland’s first national park on the North American model – a natural museum where maintenance of geological processes and native plant and animal life would take precedence over entertainment of human beings.

Clearly Sigurður Þórarinsson was a brilliant scientist, writer, educator and activist.  But Icelanders remember him for one more talent that was less well-known among his international colleagues.  Sigurður was also a poet and song writer, responsible for several popular songs that remained well known in Iceland long after his life had ended.  Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigur%C3%B0ur_%C3% 9E% C3%B3rarinsson) lists them as: Þórsmerkurljóð (María María), Vorkvöld í Reykjavík and Að lífið sé skjálfandi.

Volcano Lady

I started writing about Iceland’s volcanoes a year and a half ago, and I felt rather audacious.  After all, I am not a geologist, a volcanologist, or even Icelandic.  But I am drawn back to Iceland as often as I can rationalize a trip.  When I am there I always spend time in the bookstores.  I have looked at the books about Iceland’s volcanoes and they are either written by geologists for people who have studied geology and have a strong scientific vocabulary or they are picture books – usually capturing the latest eruption in all its glory.

     When I travel, I like to have natural history books with me, so that I have a chance of identifying the birds, flowers and trees I am likely to see.  This helps me understand the environment around me.

     Over the years that I have visited Iceland I have found handbooks of the birds that live or visit there, and one for the many flowering plants.  When I am hiking or visiting there in the warmer months, I have the books in my daypack, to resolve any questions of identification that arise. 

     Hiking is my favorite activity in Iceland, and it is impossible to ignore the volcanic landscape.  Columnar basalt, moss covered lava, erratics, volcanic cones, bubbling mud pots, geysers – they all contribute to a fascinating landscape.  When we drive through the countryside, peaks, glaciers and all variety of landmarks are pointed out: Hekla, Hengill, Krýsuvík and many more. These three are all on the list of Icelandic volcanoes.  And there are stories to go with each of them!

     A few years ago I realized that a book about the volcanoes that includes their stories is what I think is needed – and I could write it.  I love doing research and worked for decades in jobs that required a lot of writing about technical subjects for general readers – state legislators and the public.

     Winter in the Pacific Northwest is a good time to start a new writing project, and last year that is what I did.  Whenever I completed a chapter I have shared it with two friends who have spent most of their lives in Iceland, Bragi in Reykjavík and Selma on her farm, not far from here.

     Join a writers group!  is one of the commandments for writers working toward publication.  So I joined the Olympia Critique Writers Group which has many members but a core of about eight who meet most weeks to listen, read and critique each others´ work.  All of my reviewers there have been helpful and enthusiastic.  ‘‘This makes me want to go to Iceland!‘‘ is my favorite comment.

     After reading the first few chapters, Selma asked if she could share the chapters with her Dad who was visiting from Iceland.  Of course!  He liked what he read, too.  Selma told me that he started referring to me as The Volcano Lady.  Writing this book did not seem quite so audacious after all.