Iceland Directs Avalanche Funds Into Volcano Risk Studies

Iceland’s natural hazards experts can now use part of a special avalanche risk assessment fund to study the dangers posed by the country’s many volcanoes, which seem to be growing more active. At the end of last week, the country’s parliament approved a resolution from the Ministry for the Environment allowing Iceland’s Meteorological Office, which is responsible for forecasting natural hazards, to shift more of its focus toward preparing for volcanoes. The office anticipates it may take more than a decade to fully assess Iceland’s volcanic risks, but it will initially devote an estimated $2 million* over the first 3 years to kick-start the project.

The original risk assessment fund is the legacy of a pair of avalanches in 1995, which swept through the Iceland villages of Súðavík and Flateyri, killing 34 people. At the time, the Icelandic government employed just two natural hazard risk analysts. The government subsequently created the fund for risk assessment and mitigation, bringing in experts from Europe and North America to help map hazard zones and plan out defensive bulwarks such as the one that protects Flateyri today. The people hired or trained to study avalanche risk using the fund worked in different disciplines across Iceland’s university, the civil defense force, and the meteorological office, according to Sigrún Karlsdóttir, chief of natural hazards at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO). There are now around 30 avalanche risk assessment specialists in the country, she says, about 10 of whom continue working on avalanches though they “are approaching the end” of the avalanche project.

“We have made risk assessment for avalanches very successfully,” Karlsdóttir says. “We are now going to have the same for volcanoes in Iceland.” Like the avalanche project, the volcano risk assessment is long-term: Karlsdóttir estimates it will develop over 15 to 20 years. The initial 3-year plan submitted to the ministry calls for the equivalent of five full-time researchers from IMO and other scientific institutions to work on volcano risk assessment.

The idea of redirecting some of the remaining avalanche funds isn’t new. But the eruption in Iceland of Eyjafjallajökull last year and Grímsvötn earlier this year drew unusual international and government attention. In fact, after the Eyjafjallajöull eruption, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to fund a 3-year study of the risk of future ash clouds. “They’re mostly interested in how often does the volcano erupt … and the likelihood of it producing ash,” says volcanologist Evgenia Ilyinskaya of IMO, who works on that project.

“We’ve been working on [expanding the risk assessment program] for years,” says Karlsdóttir, “but after these two volcanoes the Ministry of the Environment came with this idea that we make a suggestion to them.” The first 3 years of the now-approved project plan will involve identifying all of Iceland’s active volcanoes, analyzing data from existing volcano monitoring stations, and identifying gaps in the coverage, says Ilyinskaya, who helped prepare the proposal. “Research has been done on magma composition, physical volcanology, and ash cloud modeling but it hasn’t been really summarized and put into one whole picture,” Ilyinskaya says.

The Iceland researchers intend to outline specific scenarios of where lava might interfere with human habitation or infrastructure, much as the avalanche risk assessment does, and to develop evacuation plans. Such evacuation plans exist for Icelandic locations subject to avalanches and glacier-fed floods, which sometimes rush down the flanks of stirring volcanoes, geophysicist Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik said in an interview last year after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. They worked well, he explained at the time, with residents evacuating from zones near Eyjafjallajökull quickly. But for now, such plans exist mainly in places in Iceland that have already seen natural disasters. “We can use the knowledge we have built up in risk assessment,” Karlsdóttir says. “We are hoping gradually that we can do this risk assessment for all types of natural hazards in Iceland.”