Natural Hazards

Iceland’s Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun: a remarkable volcanic eruption

Iceland’s Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun: a remarkable volcanic eruption

A six month long eruption accompanied by caldera subsidence and huge amounts of emitted gasses and extruded lavas; there is no doubt that the eruption of the Icelandic volcano in late 2014 and early 2015 was truly remarkable. In a press conference, (you can live stream it here), which took place during the recent EGU General Assembly, scientists reported on the latest from the volcano.

Seismic activity in this region of Iceland had been ongoing since 2007, but in late August 2014 a swarm of earthquakes indicated that the activity at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun was ramping up a notch. By August 18th, over 2600 earthquakes had been registered by the seismometer network, ranging in magnitude between M1.5 and M4.5. Scientist now know that one of the main drivers of the activity was the collapse of the ice-filled Bárðarbunga caldera.

Caldera collapses -where the roof of a magma chamber collapses as a result of the chamber emptying during a volcanic eruption – are rare; there have only been seven recorded events this century. The Bárðarbunga eruption is the first caldera collapse to have occurred in Iceland since 1875. They can be very serious events which result in catastrophic eruptions (e.g. the Toba eruption of 74,000 BP). In other cases the formation of the large cauldron happens over time, with the surface of the volcano slowly subsiding as vast amounts of magma are drained away via surface lava flows and the formation of dykes. Bárðarbunga caldera subsided slowly and progressively, much more so than is common for this type of eruption, to form a depression approximately 8km wide and 60m deep.

“The associated volcanic eruption, which took place 40km away from the caldera, was the largest, by volume and mass of erupted materials, recorded in Iceland in the past 230 years”, described Magnus T. Gudmundsson, Professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland, during the press conference.

If the facts and figures above aren’t sufficiently impressive, the eruption at Holuhraun also produced the largest amount of lava on the island since 1783, with a total volume of over 1.6 km3 and stretching over more than 85 km4. In places, the lava flows where 30 m thick!

The impressive figures shouldn’t detract from the significance of the events that took place during those six months: scientists were able to observe the processes by which new land is made on Earth! Major rifting episodes like this “only happen once every 50 years or so”, explained Gudmundsson.

So what exactly have scientists learnt? Most divergent boundaries – where two plates pull apart from one another – are found at Mid-Ocean Ridges, meaning there is little opportunity to study rifting episodes at the Earth’s surface. The eruption at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun offered researchers the unique opportunity to take a closer look at how rifting takes place; something which so far has only been possible at the Afar rift in Ethiopia.

New crust is generated at divergent plate margins, commonly fed by vertical sheet dykes – narrow, uniformly thick sheets of igneous material originating from underlying magma chambers. Dykes at divergent plate boundaries are common because the crust is being stretched and weakened. One of the clusters of seismic activity at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun was consistent with the formation of a dyke. The seismic signal showed that the magma from the Bárðarbunga caldera, rather than being transported vertically upwards to the surface, was in fact being transported laterally, forming a magma filled fissure which stretched 45 km away from Bárðarbunga. This video, from the Icelandic Met Office, helps to visualise the growth of the dyke over time.

The figure shows all the earthquakes which took place in the region in and around Bárðarbunga, from 16 August 2016 until 3 May 2015. The bar on the right counts days since the onset of events, and it gives a colour code indicative of the time passed. The dark blue colour implies the oldest earthquakes whereas the red colour implies the youngest earthquakes. The earthquakes clearly show the growth of a lateral dyke, headed northeast, away from the Bárðarbunga caldera. Click here to enlarge the map. (Credit: Icelandic Meteorological Office)

The figure shows all the earthquakes which took place in the region in and around Bárðarbunga, from 16 August 2016 until 3 May 2015. The bar on the right counts days since the onset of events, and it gives a colour code indicative of the time passed. The dark blue colour implies the oldest earthquakes whereas the red colour implies the youngest earthquakes. The earthquakes clearly show the growth of a lateral dyke, headed northeast, away from the Bárðarbunga caldera. Click here to enlarge the map. (Credit: Icelandic Meteorological Office)

Further study of the dyke using understanding gained the from propagating seismicity, ground deformation mapped by Global Positioning System (GPS), and interferometric analysis of satellite radar images (InSAR), allowed scientists to observe how the ground around the dyke changed in height and shape. The measurements showed the dyke was not a continuous feature, but rather it appeared broken into segments which had variable orientations. Modelling of the dyke revealed that it was the interaction of the laterally moving magma with the local topography, as well as stresses in the ground cause by the divergent plates, that lead to the unusual shape of the dyke.

On average, magma flowed in the dyke at a rate of 260 m3/s, but the speed of its propagation was extremely variable. When the magma reached natural barriers, it would slow down, only picking up momentum again once pressure built up sufficiently to overcome the barriers. Shallow depressions observed in the ice of Vatnajokull glacier (the white area in the map above) – known as Ice cauldrons – were caused by minor eruptions underneath the ice at the tips of some of the dyke segments. The dyke propagation slowed down once the fissure eruption at Holuhraun started in September 2014.

What has the Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun taught scientists about rifting processes? It seems that at divergent plate boundaries, in order to create new crust over long distances, magma generated at central volcanoes (in this case Bárðarbunga), is distributed via segmented lateral dykes, as opposed to being erupted directly above the magma chamber.


By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer


Further reading and references

You can stream the full press conference here:

Details of the speakers at the press conference are available at:

The speakers at the press conference also reported on the gas emissions as a result of the Holuhraun fissure eruption and the implications for human health. You can read more on this here: Bardarbunga eruption gases estimated.

Sigmundsson, F., A. Hooper, Hreinsdóttir, et al.: Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland, Nature, 517, 191-195, doi:10.1038/nature1411, 2015.

Sigmundsson, F., A. Hooper, Hreinsdóttir, et al.: Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland, Geophys. Res. Abstr.,17, EGU2015-10322-1, 2015 (conference abstract).

Hannah I. Reynolds, H. T., M. T. Gudmundsson, and T. Högnadóttir: Subglacial melting associated with activity at Bárdarbunga volcano, Iceland, explored using numerical reservoir simulation, Geophys. Res. Abstr.,17, EGU2015-10753-2, 2015 (conference abstract).

Imaggeo on Mondays: Earthquake Lake

Imaggeo on Mondays: Earthquake Lake

Despite its alluring turquoise waters and rugged mountain backdrop the story behind this beautiful lake is rather more troubling. In today’s Imaggeo on Mondays, the first post since our short break from the traditional format during the General Assembly, Alexander Osadchiev writes about the shaky origins of Sarez Lake.

Lake Sarez is situated in Tajikistan, deep in the Pamir Mountains. In 1911 a local earthquake caused a large landslide which blocked the valley of the relatively small Murgab River (which discharge is only 100-150 m^3/s). The valley is relatively young, on the geological scale at least, meaning it is deep and narrow and has steep sided slopes. This is the reason why the moderate volume of the landslide (about 2 km^3) was enough to form the tremendously high Usoi dam (about 550 m) – the tallest in the world either natural or man-made. The length of the Usoi dam is about 500 m which is almost equal to its height. However, lakes formed by landslide dams blocking river valleys are not uncommon in the Pamir Mountains or elsewhere around the world.

Most blocking dams are not high or solid enough to remain in place for extended periods of time. Initially, a river will seep through the dam eroding it, but usually the outflow discharge is less than the river inflow into the lake. Together with active sedimentation and silting, the water level in the lake steadily increases until it reaches the dam height. Eventually water starts flowing over the top of the dam and intensively destroys the dam. Yet due to a number of circumstances the behavior of the Sarez Lake was significantly different. On the one hand, the Usoi dam is solid enough not to have been significantly eroded in the more than one hundred years since it appeared. At the same time, it is porous: outflow and inflow volumes of water across the dam balance each other.  Crucially, this balance was obtained for a very high water level, close to the height of Usoi dam itself. Lake water levels oscillate near 500 m height, just 50m away from the top of the of 550 m dam. The height of the dam resulted in the large size of the Sarez Lake – its length is about 60 km and its volume exceeds 16 km^3.

This large volume of water (and potential energy!) situated high in the mountains (3263 m above the sea level) presents a hazard for millions of people in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan living below the Sarez Lake and along the banks of the Mugrab, Panj and Amu Darya rivers. The Usoi dam is solid enough to resist erosion and create such a big lake, but it is not known if it can withstand a big earthquake, which are not uncommon in the area. Not only can an earthquake directly destabilize Usoi dam, but an earthquake-induced landslide into the lake could cause a lake tsunami and result in the dam overflowing. Particularly, an area of friable soil forming a unstable slope, has been particularly identified as a risk. Following a large earthquake (8-9 on the Richter scale) it could presumably form a landslide.

The levels of monitoring and investigation of landslide hazards in the region and the risk presented by Lake Sarez itself are still largely understudied. Limited funding availability in Tajikistan and the remoteness of the lake – it can only be reached on foot, after several days of strenuous mountain trekking through an almost uninhabited, but unbelievably beautiful area – are amongst the main reasons this is so.

“The view of the Sarez Lake was the best prize for me and Zhamal Toktamysova at the final part of our 2-week trekking through the Pamir Mountains”, explains Alexander.


By Alexander Osadchiev, Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Physical Oceanography, Moscow

Communicate your Science Video Competition finalists: time to get voting!

For the second year in a row we’re running the EGU Communicate Your Science Video Competition – the aim being for young scientists to communicate their research in a short, sweet and public-friendly video. Our judges have now selected 3 fantastic finalists from the excellent entries we received this year and it’s time to find the best geoscience communication clip!

The shortlisted videos will be open to a public vote from now until midnight on 16 Apri; – just ‘like’ the video on YouTube to give it your seal of approval. The video with the most likes when voting closes will be awarded a free registration to the EGU General Assembly 2016.

The finalists are shown below, but you can also catch them in this finalist playlist and even take a seat in GeoCinema – the home of geoscience films at the General Assembly – to see the shortlist and select your favourite.

Please note that only positive votes will be taken into account.

The finalists:

Inside Himalayan Lakes by Zakaria Ghazoui. Like this video to vote for it!


Glacial Mystery by Guillaume Jouvet. Like this video to vote for it!


Floods by Chiara Arrighi. Like this video to vote for it!


The winning entry will be announced during the lunch break on the last day of the General Assembly (Friday 17 April).

Imaggeo on Mondays: Pyroclastic flow, Montserrat

Below the warm and tranquil waters of the Caribbean, some 480 km away from Puerto Rico, the North America Plate is being subducted under the Caribbean Plate. This has led to the formation of the Lesser Antilles volcanic arc; the result of the formation of reservoirs of magma as fluids from the down going North America Plate are mixed with the rocks of the overlying Caribbean Plate.

The continued magma generation is expressed violently at the surface on Monserrat Island, which has been the subject of extensive scientific scrutiny since the mid-1990s. This is all because of Soufrier Hills volcano, a Pele’ean type lava dome complex. This means that rather than explosive eruptions taking place, very viscous lava is slowly erupted from the volcano’s vent. The lava is so sticky and gooey that instead of flowing away, down the flanks of the volcano, it accumulates in the vent area and forms a large plug. Lava domes come in a range of shapes and sizes, in the case of Soufrier Hills, it tends to be circular and quite spiky.

Just because the eruptions on this Carbbien Island aren’t generally as spectacular, as for instance at Mt Etna in Italy, they are no less deadly! A common hazard associated with the building up of a dome by the continued accumulation of volcanic material means they can become dangerously unstable and collapse. The volcanic material careers down the flanks of the volcano in the form of pyroclastic density currents (PDCs). The largest such collapse ever observed took place in July 2003 and numerous smaller flows have occurred since. One rather large collapse happened in early 2010, when the dome atop Soufrier Hills had grown to be 1150 m asl (above sea level). After a period of unrest which started in late 2009 and was characterised by seismicity and extrusion of lava from the vent, there was a catastrophic dome collapse in February which reduce the summit height by almost 100m!

Pyroclastic flow, Montserrat. Credit: Alan Linde (distributed via

Pyroclastic flow, Montserrat. Credit: Alan Linde (distributed via

“The photo is taken from a spot at the water’s edge (just behind me) that was previously about 200 m out to sea. A PDC pushed the shoreline out by as much as ~600 m,”

says Alan Linde, who took this photograph of the smoking black landscape in April 2010.

Alan and the research team from the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM, Carnegie Institution for Science) have been involved with studying Soufrier Hills since 2003. By installing a network of very sensitive instruments in small shafts dug into the ground in and around the volcano, known as borehole strainmeters, they can measure changes in the size and volume of the ground as a result of dome collapses and explosive eruptions.

 “One of our borehole sites, very close to the coast, was almost destroyed by the hot ash. There is a clear change (from before to after the flow) in the tidal signals recorded by that site because an area of ocean loading has been removed as a result of the ash filling in and moving the coastline. The volcano is behind the small mountains, obscured by cloud.”


Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at



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