From Iceland — Listening To Volcanoes: Volcano Science Is A Quiet Job—Until It Isn’t

Listening To Volcanoes: Volcano Science Is A Quiet Job—Until It Isn’t

Published July 20, 2020

Listening To Volcanoes: Volcano Science Is A Quiet Job—Until It Isn’t

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

“I grew up in this field,” Baldur Bergsson, a specialist in monitoring at the Icelandic Met Office, tells us as we drive to one of two sites where we will see if a volcanic eruption is imminent. “My father’s been installing seismic meters since I was born. I studied natural geography at university and was very fond of volcanoes, since I grew up around them.”

Earthquakes and volcanoes are iconic of Iceland. They literally created the country itself. While images of giant ash plumes and fountains of lava ignite the imagination, what all too often go ignored are the scientists on the ground who do the quiet, often repetitive work of gathering the data that helps detect them before they happen.

Baldur is one of the many scientists in Iceland whose job it is to do just that. Today, we’re going to two sites: Eldvörp, a string of volcanic craters along the Reykjanes peninsula, and Svartsengi Power Plant, the geothermal plant whose waste waters created the Blue Lagoon—and happens to be in the shadow of Mt. Þórbjörn, a volcano that made news last March when earthquake clusters and ground swelling caused by magma making its way towards the surface were detected around it.

Evacuation plans for everyone

When Mt. Þórbjörn began acting up, readers abroad were particularly concerned about its closeness to Keflavík International Airport. Closer to home, the main concern was the town of Grindavík, which lays in the shadow of the volcano.

Photo by Art Bicnick

While an eruption at Mt. Þórbjörn would possibly spell the end of the Blue Lagoon, and likely cut off electricity and hot water to the airport, the people of Grindavík would be in good hands. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management has been holding regular town hall meetings with the townspeople, keeping them apprised, and there is a detailed evacuation plan in place that everyone knows how to follow.

“For every town in Iceland there is a very detailed plan of evacuation in place in the event of a natural disaster,” Baldur tells us. “There is a very complicated but effective strategy for this.”

At the mouth of the volcanic crater

As we reach the area of Reykjanes near the Blue Lagoon, we take a service road deep into the lava field that comprises much of the peninsula. Soon we arrive at what looks like a large mound of lava rocks, steam pouring out of every crevice. As Baldur unpacks his instruments from the back of the jeep and we approach the mound, the heat from it is palpable. “Some time ago there was lava shooting out of this,” Baldur says matter-of-factly.

The top of the mound does have a distinct crater within it. Seeing it now, covered with moss and flowers, it’s difficult to imagine that 900 years ago it was spewing lava everywhere, but if you clamber to the top you can see the row of similar crater mounds that were formed when the earth split open for several kilometres across the country, way back in the 13th century.

Photo by Art Bicnick

The first thing Baldur does is set down a small green box with a pair of tubes sticking out of it, making a constant whirring reminiscent of an electric air pump. This device monitors the presence of certain gases that are the tell-tale signs of volcanic activity: carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen. “I don’t expect to see much here now,” Baldur says. “But if we do see much here now, we’ll know that something’s changing.”

The science of waiting

Next, Baldur hammers a long iron tube into the ground, affixes a thin hose to the top of it, and connects this to a clear plastic cylinder filled with what looks like blue aquarium gravel (it turns out it’s a substance used to keep the instruments inside dry), which is in turn connected to a black box used to detect radon levels.

And then we wait. This, Baldur says, is most of what volcano specialists do: set up their instruments, wait for the data to come in, and then record it. It can be tedious, but it’s crucial work for keeping people safe.

“My first project was to map out the gas-emitting areas around Hekla, and I don’t know how many hours I spent at this,” Baldur recalls. “Putting an instrument on the ground, waiting a minute and a half, picking it up and walking ten steps, and doing it again. But now we know where the gas-emitting places are. It just took 22 trips to the summit of Hekla.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Baldur takes his readings of the radon levels, writing them in a notebook. Nothing new here. It appears we are safe from an impending volcanic eruption for now.

“There are a number of gasses that are distinctive to eruptive gasses in Iceland, such as sulphur dioxide. If we were to measure that, we would know that the magma is shallow, like at three kilometres depth or higher. If there was a sudden increase in hydrogen or CO2, for instance. Basically what we’re trying to see is: is there a change? Is there a difference from last time?”

Literally standing on magma

We pack up, load into the jeep and drive west to the Svartsengi Power Plant. Our site is a large clearing near large geothermal steam pipes that issue a hissing roar. As before, we are here to measure radon, gas levels and ground temperatures. Seeing Mt. Þórbjörn a mere stone’s throw away, I recall last March’s news that magma making its way upwards had lifted the ground by a few centimeters.

I ask Baldur where this swelling took place, what area is basically resting on top of a giant pool of magma. He makes a wide, sweeping gesture with his arm. A mere two or three kilometers beneath our feet, a sea of magma bides its time.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“The volcanic systems in Reykjanes are not under glaciers, they’re not as large and defined,” he says. “The eruptions are usually diffusive; you’ll have an event which opens and then lava just flows out. You don’t have a huge ash cloud like they had at Grímsvötn. What we’ll probably get here in Reykjanes is a fire fountaining of lava, which will reach maybe a few hundred metres at the start, and then lava flowing to the sides. Probably a lot of gas, like at Holuhraun, but not an ash cloud.”

The excitement of impending doom

Knowing when the data indicates an eruption is on the way depends entirely on the historic record.

“What we’re focusing on is what happens just before an eruption,” Baldur explains. “This could be maybe a month before or, in the case of Hekla, hours before. Each volcano is different. We try to define what happens before an eruption, and a lot of our knowledge comes from past eruptions; [we] document that and adjust our monitoring techniques for each individual volcano. Of course, this is really difficult when it comes to volcanoes that might erupt every 100 or 200 years. In those cases, we just have to go with how things generally work.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

When the data does indicate an eruption is on the way, the mood amongst scientists becomes highly charged with excitement. “Everyone that’s in this [field] gets excited. A lot of people get very stressed. They want to get all the data; all the things have to get done, right now. Calls to Civic Protection and the media.”

For the most part, though, the job of people like Baldur is exactly how it was today.

“A lot of repetition,” he says with a laugh. “But that’s science. These readings will probably give the same results as last week, but we’ll never know unless we try, again and again and again.”

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