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Öræfajökull could bring ash to all of Iceland

12.12.2018 - 12:15
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A brand-new risk assessment from the Icelandic Met Office says that an eruption of Öræfajökull like the one in 1362 would likely cause ashfall across all of Iceland, as well as potentially damaging power lines and roads in southeast Iceland.

The results of the Veðurstofan (Met Office) research on volcanoes in Iceland that includes the likely effects of ashfall from Öræfajökull were shared in the Frontiers in Earth Science journal in mid-November. A risk assessment based on the data has now been released through the Met Office website. 

The risk assessment of ashfall is part of a bigger project the Met Office is working on in cooperation with the University of Iceland, the police civil protection agency, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, and Vegagerðin (the roads and coastal administration). 

Öræfajökull is one of Iceland’s most dangerous volcanoes and its explosive eruption in 1362 is thought of as one of the country’s deadliest eruptions. That eruption was used as the template for the risk assessment, with emphasis on what it would mean for roads, power lines, airports, and more. 

Sigrún Karlsdóttir, head of natural hazard monitoring at the Met Office, says Öræfajökull has been showing signs of activity for at least the last year. There is increased seismic activity in the area and the mountain has been expanding since last year, which is an indicator of likely magma accumulation. 

“What controls ashfall at any given time is really how the wind is blowing it, but when we were modelling this eruption, we naturally saw that the local area around the volcano will be greatly affected. Both southeast Iceland and East Iceland, as well as the south, can expect a lot of ash. And this affects, for example, road transport and breaks in road transport can be expected and that it won’t be possible to travel or transport goods there for a time while it’s going on. And also, over-land power lines could be affected [...] and there could actually be ashfall across almost all of the country. There will be no place that is totally immune,” Sigrún says. 

She says it is important for civil protection authorities to react to the results of the new research and adds that such work is already underway. Preparations are already underway at the national grid, in cooperation with the scientists, for how to minimise disturbance to the electricity supply in Iceland. 

How likely is it that an eruption like the one in 1362 will happen again soon?  

“It is very hard to say what we can expect, but it is nevertheless good to be prepared for a possible big eruption. I believe the civil protection authorities work out their contingency plans based on the biggest possible event.”          

Sigrún says that while today’s infrastructure is much better than 7-800 years ago, we are more reliant on it. Electricity and communications networks are incredibly important, she says—not least for the Met Office, which is in charge of monitoring, forecasting, and reporting on eruptions as they happen. We are in many ways better prepared than in the olden days, but in other ways we are more vulnerable than ever, she says.