Menningarnótt. The last and biggest of the major summer festivals in Iceland. A third of the country attends. So I mean, I couldn't miss out on that, right? Bárðarbunga was only mindly rumbling... until I got dressed, when suddenly she was ripping out a new channel and the seismic activity was taking off. Then when I was at a little greenhouse-concert, someone runs up to the stage and shows the singer a news report: Bárðarbunga is erupting. He announces it to the crowd, and half of them reach for their cell phones.
I managed to duck into a place nearby to use a public computer to write a quick just-the-basics update for you all and tried to check in occasionally with minor updates... but a detailed writeup was lacking.
Let's get into what's going on here with another Eldfjallavakt!
(Credit to "Houses In Motion" for the title of this post :) )
R is an alveolar trill if slow, an alveolar tap if fast; ð is an voiced th, like in "this", not "thin"; ll (rendered as tl) is a tongue click where you let the pressure build up behind your tongue then spill out to the sides; g (rendered as k) is devoiced like a k but unaspirated like a g; n is generally devoiced; and there's probably other clarification I should make, but that's good enough. :)
1. What is Bárðarbunga and why should I care?
You really should read the other entires in this series ;) The short of it? She's Iceland's biggest volcano, and while the most probable outcome is one of her smaller eruptions, she's capable of eruptions so catastrophic that they can not only reshape Iceland, but alter the global climate something fierce.
2. So she's erupting now?
Yes. No. Maybe. Okay, let's back up. The volcano began 6 1/2 days ago sending out a magma intrusion, plowing a 25-kilometer-long tunnel through the rock from the main Bárðarbunga magma chamber to under Dyngjujökull, a glacier on a ridge to the northeast. And then it stopped; the whole pattern changed. The heavy rumbling in the intrusion became less intense, and instead large subsidence quakes began happening from the reduce pressure in the magma chamber. If that had continued, eventually the intrusion would have solidified, the magma chamber reached a new equilibrium, and all would be fine for at least another few years.
But that's not what happened. Because suddenly today the "cork popped" and the magma began plowing a path to the north:
Furthermore, she was doing this at a disturbingly shallow depth. Quake activity soared:
I made a video showing changes over time:
Tremor activity soared too, although unlike quakes it dropped mostly back down. Uplift hit 20 centimeters. And then, after analyzing all of the data, the Met Office made an announcement: a "small" lava eruption has begun under the glacier.
3. So she IS eruptuing?
Well, then they sent the survey plane TF-SIF out to survey the site. And TF-SIF found.. .well... nothing. No plume, no sigkatli, no jökulhlaup. Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson, a geophysicist on the trip, even cast doubt on the fact that the magma had reached the ice.
3. So she ISN'T eruptuing?
The Met Office accepts this report but still doesn't feel that they should change their status from red (erupting) because of the constant and intense quake activity and danger of rapid escalation of the situation. In fact, this incredible level of quake activity is the reason they're having trouble understanding what's going on, the ground is just getting torn to pieces over there and it's often hard to make out individual quakes. But the general statement people are going with now is "no".
Really, though, it doesn't much matter.
4. How could it possibly not matter whether the volcano is erupting or not?
An eruption seems pretty much inevitable now even if it hasn't started. The quake activity is of the charts. We even had a 5.3 just recently, that's huge for a volcanic quake, the largest in the area in 18 years; it's so big that it's off the Met Office's graph's scale). And it's just one of many big quakes. The channel is rapidly expanding. The airspace over a good chunk of Iceland is now closed:
Everyone seems pretty sure that it's going to happen in some form or another, and I personally am of the same mind.
Beyond that, regardless of when the lava meets the ice, it'll most likely take a long time to get through it. The last eruption of Bárðarbunga (kind of) was the Gjálp eruption (a location between Bárðarbunga and Grímsvötn); it was a rather small eruption by Bárðarbunga standards but was still one of the largest in Iceland in the 20th century. It took nearly two days for the lava to melt through the glaciers enough to form sigkatli:
The ice in this location is 150-400 meters deep. By comparison, the Statute of Liberty is only 46 meters tall (plus the base).
5. But I saw pictures on the webcam that looked like an eruption.
Actually, that's normal for the site. To help you all out to see what's normal, I compiled a video with the last several days of webcam images :)
6. Okay. Well, anyway, the Met Office said "small lava eruption" before, so that's good, right?
Actually, that's pretty irrelevant too. With only a few notable exceptions, such as Hekla (more on her in another diary), most Icelandic volcanic eruptions begin with small lava eruptions. For example, Eyjafjallajökull began with lava eruptions from the new vents Móði and Magni on Fimmvörðarháls:
(I climbed over the lava a couple years after the eruption and it was still hot enough to cook a sandwich just under the surface in places.) But it then progressed from that to the famous low, dusty column from the main volcano:
Underneath the glaciers, every eruption is a lava eruption by definition; you can't have an ash plume coming out when you still have hundreds of meters of ice over you that you haven't yet broken through.
7. How much magma are we talking about here?
A disturbing amount, unfortunately. Even more than the incredibly high previous estimate I reported on a couple days ago. It's now estimated that in just six days an incredible 250 million cubic meters formed an intrusion even without there being an outlet for it to flow into. That's not "250 milion total magma available to erupt" (I have no clue what is the total, and I don't believe anyone else knows either), that's just the amount that moved into the intrusion in six days. That's a flow rate comparable to the Hudson River at New York City. If only the magma that's currently in the intrusion erupted, it'd be a VEI 4 eruption with 2 1/2 times more material than the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.
8. So... it's going to be a really big eruption?
No, we can't say that either. We can't even yet say that there will be an eruption, though right now it looks highly unlikely that there won't. All that we can say is that this system has put a great deal of magma into motion in a very short period of time and keeps moving more, ripping through rock with earthquakes coming like popcorn popping... so I personally don't plan to underestimate it.
9. But there's nothing to be worried about immediately now, right?
If you don't live in Iceland? No. Even if it is working its way through the ice, it'll take time. When it breaks through, there will be pictures - most likely, the first signs being sigkatli.
If you do live in Iceland, but don't live in a jökulhlaup zone? No, for the same reason as above.
If you do live in Iceland and live in one of the areas threatened by jökulhlaups? "Not yet". There's not yet been a spike in flow rates. But there probably will be one at some point, so you should be ready. I haven't seen a change to the predicted flow rate of 5-20k cubic meters per second - less than an order of magnitude less than Bárðarbunga's bigger floods, but still more than Niagara, Iguazu, and Victoria Falls combined.
10. Distract me. How was Menningarnótt?
Fine, thanks! Let's have some pictures :)
Dillalude, sort of an "Easy-listening Portishead":
Svavar Knútur plays by a greenhouse (interrupted by volcano news). He's fun, he does stand-up comedy between songs:
Vöfflukaffi (Waffle Coffee) - random people who live in town offer free waffles to strangers
Nearby graffiti art (Reykjavík has a huge number of such wall murals)
Not a clue what this was...
The chess association held a street playoff and concert.
Street grassed-over and turned into a dance-off:
Drum and dance performance:
DJ scratching records at an outdoor dining tent while my friend Björn plays sax (he's best known for playing with Kiriyama Family):
Crowds on Laugarvegur:
Art at a modern art exhibit that I liked:
Art at a modern art exhibit that I didn't like:
This little kid is an unbelievable drummer:
Karlakórinn Esja on Lækjartorg:
Biker show and concert:
Úlfur Úlfur, a hip-hop artist
Reykjavíkurdætur, Reykjavík's premiere feminist hip-hop collective. They're very involved in Slut Walk:
MC Gauti, a great hip hop / metal mix (at least live, and not when performing with úlfur úlfur):
Skálmöld, Iceland's most famous heavy metal group. About 1/3rd of the country was inattendance for this concert. It was opened with an update on the volcano.
Mammút, one of my favorite bands all in all:
Monotown, another great band:
Nýdönsk. I don't like them as much, so I went around and took pictures ;)
Went off to watch the fireworks:
These firey explosions, at least, posed no real threat. :)
Update, 2:30, 24 august: The dike has moved even further to the north. It's now no longer under the glacier at its end, meaning an eruption there would be no jökulhlaup! ( :) ! ). This is very good news for northern Iceland. Now, that doesn't preclude other vents from opening up under the glacier, but at least in terms of "most likely to erupt", that's a good spot. What we don't want to see if is keeping moving in that direction endlessly. See that next circle? That's Askja, one of Iceland's other biggest volcanoes, the one whose 1875 eruption led to mass abandonment of eastern Iceland by a good chunk of the population (and the reason that Gimli, Manitoba and other Icelandic settlements in Canada and the northern US exist today). It just doesn't sound pleasant.
The Met Office has now fully acknowledged that they misinterpreted the data yesterday and that there was not an eruption, and they lowered the aviation color code accordingly. However, they spend the rest of their post pointing out how great the activity is. One amazing fact: from midnight to 11:40 there were over 700 quakes, one per minute on average. The graph has gone bonkers. Surface tremors are going back up. Closures are still in force.
Update, 9:50, 24 august:: You can see some photo galleries from Menningarnótt published in the press here and here. I'm not going to say which, but I'm in three of them, and in one I'm the main focus of the pic ;)
Status is unchanged with the volcano, although there's some interesting comments coming from some of the scientists investigating it that I'll cover with the next diary (which I'll post just before I go to bed). As it stands, though, the intrusion is creeping to the north and the quake activity is still utterly ridiculous.