Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag

Geology

Scientists determine sub-glacial volcano Bárðarbunga is showing increased geothermal activity

By Staff

  • Headwaters of Jöuklsá á Fjöllum One of the glacial rivers carrying meltwater from the northern edges of Vatnajökull glacier. Photo/Stefán Scheving, IMO

The source of an unusual spike in geothermal activity beneath the northwestern corner of Vatnajökull glacier is still a mystery. For several weeks Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which carries meltwater from the northwestern edge of the glacier, has been showing signs of increased geothermal activity beneath the glacier, a spike in electrical conductivity, a reddish color and a strong smell of sulfur. Bárðarbunga, one of Iceland's most powerful volcanoes, is located beneath the NW part of Vatnajökull.

We at Iceland Magazine have been following this story with interest as changes in geothermal activity in volcanic systems are a sure sign of changes and increasing activity. 

Read more: Volcanic systems in Vatnajökull under close surveillance: Increased activity in Kverkfjöll mountains

Read more: Scientists monitor spike in geothermal or volcanic activity beneath Vatnajökull glacier

Scientists haven't been able to reach the area

Last week scientists believed that changes in activity at Kverkfjöll mountains, a geothermal hotspot were the source of a spike in electrical conductivity in Jökulsá á Fjöllum. The latest statement from the Icelandic Meteorological Office reaches a very different conclusion: The monster volcano Bárðarbunga is most likely to blame. 

Bad weather in the Central Highlands has stopped scientists from mounting an expedition to the northwestern part of Vatnajökull to inspect conditions. In the meantime scientists have been studying seismic readings and satellite images to search for changes in behavior of the two main suspects: The geothermal area in Kverkfjöll or the Bárðarbunga volcanic system.

Aerial photos point to Bárðarbunga

Scientists were able to fly over the area for the first time over the weekend. A study of these aerial photographs shows no signs of changing activity at Kverkfjöll. Attention has therefore re-focused on Bárðarbunga which is located to the west of Kverkfjöll.

Read more: Quick primer on Bárðarbunga, Iceland's most powerful volcano

The photographs show unusual levels of meltwater coming from Dyngjujökull outlet glacier which covers Bárðarbunga.

Kverkfjöll vs Bárðarbunga

It matters quite a bit whether the source of the geothermal activity is beneath Kverkfjöll or Bárðarbunga. Kverkfjöll mountains are an old volcanic system known for significant and powerful geothermal activity. The last major eruption in Kverkfjöll is believed to have taken place 1300 years ago. Scientists believe some minor eruptions could have taken place in the remote mountains in the past few hundred years, but the likelihood of an eruption in Kverkfjöll is believed to be minimal.

Bárðarbunga, on the other hand, is one of the most active and powerful volcanoes in Iceland. The volcano has been showing growing signs of activity since the end of the Holuhraun eruption, its last eruption in 2014-15. This eruption produced Holuhraun lava field in the central highlands, the largest lava field produced in Iceland since the 18th century.

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