Öræfajökull has also erupted before, to devastating effect. Twice, in fact: in 1362 and 1727. The former eruption was enormous – some 10 cubic kilometres of material was blown into the atmosphere, and the district around the volcano was uninhabited for about 40 years afterwards. The eruption in 1727 was smaller, but was nonetheless devastating. Three people and many farm animals were killed in the ensuing glacial flooding that the eruption provoked.
While glacial flooding has long been regarded as the greater danger that Öræfajökull poses, Þorvaldur points out a number of distinguishing characteristics about the volcano that also present immediate danger, to humans and livestock alike.
Amongst these is that the volcanic cloud from an eruption at Öræfajökull would come rushing down the mountain at speeds between 100 and 200 KPH. Such a cloud would also be incredibly hot, reaching temperatures of 300°C to 500°C, and would have no oxygen in it. Combined, Þorvaldur says, these elements create a situation in which “if you’re in the way of such an event there is little escape”.
As such, Þorvaldur believes the evacuation plan needs to be updated—at the sign of an impending eruption, people in the vicinity could have as little as a few minutes to clear out.
“The evacuation plan, as it was presented, presumes that a glacial flood would come down the mountainside first,” he said. “Plan B presumed an eruption of lava or ash, but I think we should maybe switch the priorities, and have eruptions as the main focus of the evacuation plan.”
Volcanic eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict. While there were some indications last year that Öræfajökull might be about to erupt, that has yet to come to pass. For the record, there is no such thing as a volcano being “overdue” for an eruption—they can happen tomorrow, a year from now, or a hundred years from now. It’s all up to the volcano.
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