Magma flowing into Bárðarbunga caldera with great force

By Kristján Már Unnarsson
The Sprengisandur road at Tómasarhagi
The Sprengisandur road at Tómasarhagi VÍSIR/SVEINN ARNARSSON
The Civil Protection has declared an Alert Phase north of the Dyngjujökull glacier and has decided to evacuate the highlands north of it. A large amount of magma is believed to be flowing into the Bárðarbunga caldera with great force, according to scientists. The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has declared that the bridges over the Jökulsá river will not hold against a flood on a scale similar to the flood on Skeiðarársandur in 1996. The seismic activity is now being reported worldwide and preparations are being made to ground all flights in the event of any possible ash emissions.

The Bárðarbunga caldera is now considered threatening and the authorities are responding to that threat in various ways. All highland roads north of Vatnajökull glacier have been closed and all traffic banned, whether by vehicle or on foot. The Bárðarbunga situation is now attracting worldwide attention on a scale similar to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010.

Seismographs at the Icelandic Meteorological Office reveal that the seismic activity is at high, but stable levels. Kristín Vogfjörð, seismologist and research director at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, says that the activity is very powerful.

"This just keeps going on. This is many times more powerful than what's been going on in recent years."

Kristín Vogfjörð, seismologist and research director at the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
Kristín says that a large volume of magma is flowing under the caldera, heading northeast towards the Kverkfjöll mountain range. The magma is staying at a depth of 5-10 kilometers - there are no signs of it moving any closer to the surface. If asked if an eruption is due to happen in the next few days, Kristín responds:

"Not neccesarily. There's nothing suggesting that it's about to. But due to the size and scale of the activity there's full reason to be vigilant and prepare for an eruption."

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration is drawing up reactionary plans. There are three bridges crossing the Jökulsá river and Hreinn Haraldsson, director of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, is not optimistic about a flooding event like that on Skeiðarársandur in 1996.

"They wouldn't take it, all three bridges would be gone in an instant," he says. He adds that scientists cannot predict the scale of the floods, and that they may be smaller in scale. Right now equipment is being put into place to help break the roads and relieve pressure from the man-made structures if a managable flood was imminent.

The bridge crossing the Jökulsá river at Grímsstaðir.
Losing the bridges would mean a cost of 3 billion kronur to rebuild them, the circle road being disrupted and all land-based travel between the north and east of Iceland being severed. Hreinn states that losing those bridges would probably be the biggest loss incurred by a Bárðarbunga eruption, as the Icelandic road network would be disrupted for months while the bridges were rebuilt.

Around 400 airplanes travel through the Icelandic air traffic control space every day. While the avionic alert level for Iceland has been raised to the second-highest level, business goes on as usual at the air traffic control center in Reykjavík. Friðþór Eydal, spokesman for Isavia, states that air traffic has not yet begun to divert from Icelandic airspace.

People have learned from the Eyjafjallajökull and Grímsvötn eruptions, and many that have booked flights are concerned that they'll become stranded in the event of an eruption. If an eruption takes place the hazardous areas of Icelandic airspace would be closed off to traffic.

The Sprengisandur road at Tómasarhagi, taken yesterday. Nearby is the intersection that leads to the Gæsavatn road, which has now been declared a no-go zone for all traffic.

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Activity in Bárðarbunga volcano

Over the last seven years seismic activity has been gradually increasing in Bardarbunga and the fissure swarm north of the volcano.

2800 earthquakes in three days

Of these around 950 have occured since midnight today. Several of these events were larger than magnitude 3.

"There is full reason to expect an eruption"

The seismic activity in Bardarbunga on the Vatnajokull glacier is very powerful and therefore full reason to expect a volcanic eruption according to a specialist at The Icelandic Meteorological Office. A live webcam has been placed in the vicinity of Bardarbunga.

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