Iceland releases more sulphur than all of Europe due to eruption

By Svavar Hávarðsson
The eruption is notable for releasing much gas and quickly creating a large lava field.
The eruption is notable for releasing much gas and quickly creating a large lava field. Photo/Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson
"It's clear that no eruption in the 20th century even comes close to this one. We have to go back to the 19th century to find an eruption that released so much gas. It exceeds all known measurements that we have," says Þorsteinn Jóhannsson at the Icelandic Environmental Agency, when asked about the notable traits of the Holuhraun eruption and the pollution that stems from it.

The eruption has, in only the span of 3 weeks, secured its place in the history books for at least two reasons.

Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson, professor in geophysics, has pointed out that the latest measurements indicate that the lava field is considerably larger than previously believed. The volume of the lava that has emerged from the crack north of the Dyngjujökull glacier is already believed to be at 500 million cubic meters. The surface area is approaching 40 square kilometers. Its thickness is most along the centerline; closest to the craters its 30 meters, but 18-22 meters elsewhere, with the average thickness around 14 meters.

Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson.
The lava field is among the largest that has formed in Iceland in a long time. Looking back at eruptions in the past 150 years, only the 13-month long eruption from Hekla in 1947-1948 is larger. If the Holuhraun eruption continues with the same force as before, it will reach the same volume as the Hekla eruption in just 2 weeks, writes Magnús Tumi.

But the eruption is also notable for its release of gasses, particularly the amount of sulphurdioxide (SO2). Þorsteinn, who is a geophysicist that specializes in atmosphere quality, says that exact numberrs are unavailable but he believes that the amount of gasses discharged is around 10-20.000 tons a day, though certain measurements show a higher density.

"The gas emissions from Holuhraun are around 10-60 thousand tons of sulphur a day. By comparison the EU nations release 14 thousand tons of sulphur a day, and then we're counting every possible source; industry, energy production, mass transit, heating, etc," says Þorsteinn and adds that in that context the Holuhraun eruption is far from being a minor eruption. Quite the contrary.

The meeting of the Civil Protection's science council yesterday revealed that there are no visible signs of the eruption subsiding in force. The lavafield continues to grow and there is no reduction in volcanic products.

The glacier on the Bárðarbunga caldera has now sunken 27-28 meters since the start of the eruption and the seismicity in the mountain is the same as in recent days.

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Video: Scientists move burning lava into a pot

Scientists at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland are still very much at work at the lava field Holuhraun north of Vatnajökull. They have released a video which shows them transferring burning hot lava into a pot and cooling it with water.

Comparable to Vesuvius and St. Helens eruptions

The as-of-yet-unnamed eruption north of the Vatnajökull glacier has reached a higher category on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) and is now considered to be VEI 5.

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