Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

New Study Sheds Light on Volcanic Eruption in Iceland

Andy Dugmore standing on the western part of the summit crater of Eyjafjallajökull in August 2010. Photo: Martin Kirkbride

We all remember the chaos that erupted in the early spring of 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in southern Iceland, sent dense clouds of black smoke and ash into the air.  But the story of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption is more than just the photos of frustrated, stranded travelers. Once the ash settles, there’s a lot that can be learned about the formation of volcanic ash layers, as well as their environmental and social impacts.

Eyjafjallajökull began erupting in March 2010 and continued shooting large plumes of ash for nearly three months. While many saw this occurrence as a disaster, Andrew Dugmore, a faculty member of the Graduate Center City University of New York (CUNY) and a professor of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, saw the eruption as a once-in-a-generation research opportunity.

The glacier Gígjökull flows out of the summit crater—floods and ash fall have transformed the area, infilling the lake in front of the glacier and carving new gorges. Photo: Andy Dugmore

The RAPID Project

Dugmore is the principal investigator for RAPID: Environmental and Social Impacts of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption, a pilot project supported by the National Science Foundation.

Icelandic farming areas to the south of the crater. Photo: Andy Dugmore

“There is an advantage of being able to link the human story with the environmental story [of the eruption]. We have the story that people tell on Twitter, Facebook and in the newspapers that is an evolving record about the eruption, its impacts and its consequences. Running in parallel to that, there is an environmental record you can go out and measure,” Dugmore explained.  With his new grant, Dugmore and his team hope to combine the two stories to give a better understanding of the interaction between the eruption, changing environments and humans.

Data Falling from the Sky

Although Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption was small by world standards, it left quite a bit of material behind for scientific study. Some of the most abundant sources of information are the layers formed by the black and dark brown ash thrown into the air during the eruption. As this material, known as tephra, falls from the sky and settles on the ground, it first forms a layer that directly reflects what is going on in the eruption cloud; over time it is transformed by various environmental processes like wind and rain.

These layers of tephra are an important part of the project because they provide both environmental data and a snapshot of the landscape they bury at the time of eruption. “Once the tephra layer is on the ground, it will begin to be buried and become a part of the geologic record of the landscape and define the surface as it was in spring 2010 in southern Iceland,” Dugmore said.

Tephra layers are common in Iceland and other volcanic areas and they can help researchers like Dugmore work across a landscape and precisely compare and contrast environmental conditions in different areas at the time of the eruption (i.e., coastal versus inland versus farm A versus farm B). The tephra layers also contain clues about past eruptions themselves that help researchers reconstruct the eruptions that formed them. 

“We know these tephra are fantastic data. The next question though is that they themselves also have an impact. Of course they’re not just creating nice, neat marker horizons across the landscape. The fact that these volcanoes erupt, bring challenges to the surrounding people,” Dugmore said.

Studying Societal Impacts

Floods caused by the eruption created much damage. Here teams work at restoring a riverbed south of the volcano. Photo: Andy Dugmore

Remarkably, life in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull continued through the eruption.  After initial evacuations, when floods from the melting glacier on Eyjafjallajökull were a threat, people returned to their homes.

Some farmers continued operating during the months-long eruption, keeping their animals in barns and staying indoors as much as possible. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. Problems abounded: vegetation was smothered; floods washed away fields and roads; farmers lost lambs whose sensitive lungs could not handle the airborne ash and dust that worked its way into the barns. For people under the eruption cloud, life was very hard.

“This poor guy was on television in tears because there was his life’s work that he felt had just been destroyed. And if you looked at the pictures it was just black everywhere—just like Mordor,” Dugmore remembered.

But some weeks later, things started to look up. On one of the farms most impacted by the eruption, tephra was ploughed into the fields and crop yields improved—also helped no doubt by the warm summer of 2010. And now, the ash also seems to be boosting the longterm quality of the grazing because it has smothered the moss and, through a mulching effect, helped to strengthen the grass that has grown through. The result: a richer, grassier hillside for the sheep and lambs to graze.

Tephra fall has a mixed effect on the vegetation. Photo: Andy Dugmore

“When the eruption started, internationally there was a panic, but as you go through time you realize it has had a mixed effect. It’s a mixed story. What we see is there’s an impact, there’s the way people adapt and reconcile to what happens next.” Dugmore said.

Life goes on but for many of the local people, their views of the mountain that forms the backdrop to their lives has changed forever.

Teamwork

Not only is Dugmore’s RAPID grant study answering key questions on the impact of the most recent Eyjafjallajökull eruption, it’s also an opportunity to bring together a multi-national team of researchers and train the next generation of scientists.

Researchers from the CUNY, the Universities of Iceland, Dundee, Durham, Edinburgh, Oxford and Stirling the Institute of Archaeology, Iceland and Reykjavik Academy all participate in the study. They bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise ranging from geography and ecology to anthropology. This concentration of research experience is the perfect opportunity for research-led education. Dugmore takes graduate students and more than three-dozen undergraduate students to Iceland with him to help collect data and solve scientific questions.

“At the end of the day what we’re trying to do is develop the next generation of people who are well-equipped to problem-solve,” Dugmore said.

In the field the students are divided into smaller groups of three and guided through the process of data collection and how to work their way through research questions. In a way, it’s as if the researchers are detectives trying to unravel how recent and historic volcano eruptions impact people and their surrounding environment.

“For the CSI guys, no crime scene is ever the same. It’s how you solve the problem and what you bring to bear. It’s how you combine together different disciplines, people of different backgrounds and generations. Those are the best ways to tackle field research,” he said.

As the project progresses, updates will appear on http://www.nabohome.org/, which also gives a wider insight into current research on people and environments in the North Atlantic. –Alicia Clarke

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