Eyjafjallajökull and Global Warming in Iceland

Bjarki Sigursveinsson. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bjarki Sigursveinsson. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Eyjafjallajökull is located beneath an ice cap in southern Iceland, 125km south of the capital city Reykjavik. On the 14th April 2010, Eyjafjallajökull began to erupt, ejecting plumes of volcanic ash several kilometres into the atmosphere. The first eruption came from an ice-free area on the north-east side of the 1660m high volcano and produced lava, with little explosive activity. This was followed by an eruption in a 2.5km wide caldera beneath the ice cap near the summit of the volcano on 14th April, melting of large amounts of ice and leading to flooding in southern Iceland.

Researchers at the University of Iceland estimated that there was circa 1 km3 of ice in the summit crater and 25% of this was melted in the first two days of the eruption. The mixture of magma and water created a plume of volcanic ash and gas over 10 km high, which spread out and was carried by south-easterly winds towards the Faroe Islands, Norway and Scotland.

Clearly, volcanic eruptions cause huge amounts of destruction and disturbance, and the eruption of Eyjafjallajokul was no exception. Not only did the eruption impact Iceland nationally, but Eyjafjallajokul also had a global impact. Initially, the volcanic eruption seemed to turn day to night due to the ash blocking out the sun, while rescuers wore face masks to prevent them from choking on the clouds of ash. Roads were damaged, services disrupted and crops ruined by ash and pyroclastic flows. Over 100,000 flights were cancelled over 8 days and there were total economic losses of over £80 million.

Undoubtedly, these primary impacts had knock-on effects, causing sporting events to be abandoned due to cancelled flights, while fresh food imports were interrupted and industries affected by a lack of imported raw materials. Many people couldn’t access clean water as local water supplies were contaminated with fluoride. Furthermore, major flooding occurred as a result of the glacier melting and torrents of water flowed out from beneath the ice.

Internationally, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull caused large sections of European airspace to close down. Business people and tourists were stranded and industrial production was affected globally as raw materials could not be flown in. On the bright side, Eyjafjallajökull now generates a huge amount of tourism for Iceland, with its own visitors centre attracting 1.8 million tourists in 2016 (over 6 times Iceland’s population).

Another huge, global factor affecting the landscape of Iceland is Global Warming. The consequences of global warming are far-reaching, affecting the earth's climate system, including its land, atmosphere, oceans, and the melting of its glaciers.  

In 2016, the rapid melting of ice in just a few weeks caused the rivers from one of Iceland’s largest glacier around Skeiðarárjökull to join and form one river for the first time since the Middle Ages.  Previously, in 2009, one of the three tributaries from the glacier had dried up. When the other, Sula, disappeared in 2016, all the melted water flowed into the last remaining river. This has caused a drastic alteration to the Icelandic landscape and the glacier’s rapid decline is expected to continue in the future. 

In addition, the Earth's crust under Iceland is rebounding as global warming melts its glaciers. A glacier of ice pushes down on the land below it, and when this ice melts, the land slowly rebounds. In south-central Iceland, scientists have reported that some sites are moving upward approximately 1.4 inches (35 mm) per year. The current fast uplift of the Icelandic crust is caused by the accelerated melting of its glaciers and coincides with the onset of warming that began about 30 years ago. It is thought that this extra uplift could be behind an increase in volcanic activity, with three Icelandic eruptions in the last five years.  Iceland is the first place where geoscientists have proved that loss of ice mass has accelerated the rate of isostatic rebound and represents a climatically induced change in the Earth's landscape.

GeographySophia Iqbal