“I can’t recall anything like this,” Hálfdán Björnsson told an Icelandic news reporter, standing on the ash-covered ground at his farm, Kvísker, Southeast of Vatnajökull on the second day of the volcanic eruption in Grímsvötn. “The last time I can remember any significant ash falling was 1936.”
Vatnajökull National Park is the largest national park in Europe, and covers about 13% of Iceland. At 20 minutes past seven, on the evening of May 21, a volcanic eruption broke out in Grímsvötn volcano, located beneath the ice cap of Vatnajökull glacier. It was the fifth Grímsvötn eruption since 1983.
While Grímsvötn happens to be the most active volcano in Iceland, eruptions from Grímsvötn tend to be small and transient. This one met that criterion halfway. While it only lasted four days (it has not been declared over yet, but is showing little signs of activity) – it was the biggest eruption in Iceland for more than a century. In the first 24 hours of activity, the Grímsvötn volcano ejected more ash and magma than the volcano Eyjafjallajökull did during its entire 2010 eruption. Quite a feat in a country that averages a volcanic eruption every five years.
Eyjafjallajökull is still a sore subject for the millions that were affected by grounded flights and delayed trips during its 2010 European Tour. Airborne ash particles drifted across Europe, grounding flights in various countries for a total of eight days, and across three continents. Perhaps understandably, news of another eruption in Iceland caused widespread alarm in aviation circles that the story might repeat itself. It turned out to be an unnecessary concern. While the volcano ejected copious amounts of ash, it was heavier, and weather conditions were also very different. By the time it stopped discharging ash into the jet stream, disruption from the eruption amounted to little more than what your average snowstorm would create.
But while the affects of the eruption were miniscule on a global scale, they were considerably more on a local scale. In particular for the 1000 or so inhabitants in the area South of the Grímsvötn volcano, who were now faced with a thick layer of ash that forced its way into every little crevasse it encountered. In Klausturhóll, a retirement home for the elderly in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, the staff was fighting a losing battle to keep the ash out. “As soon as the wind picks up, it comes blowing in through every crack,” director Sigþrúður Ingimundardóttir, told news reporters. She said residents were doing good, but expressed her worries for those who suffered from asthma.
The upside to repeated volcanic eruptions, of course, is the experience gained for response units and the knowledge that can be applied to emergency procedures. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption was a lesson learned. The eruption in Grímsvötn was an opportunity to apply that lesson. From aviation authorities to retirement home workers, everyone seems to have passed the test, however bleak the outlook may have been in the ash-induced darkness of the four days of the Grímsvötn eruption.
We had been warned that Saturday, May 21, 2011, would bring doomsday, at last. And while most people took that warning with a healthy dose of skepticism, news of the eruption in Iceland, may have given some cause for concern. The general feeling outside of Iceland may been best summed up in an unaccredited Facebook status: “It’s spelled E-R-U-P-T-I-O-N, not R-A-P-T-U-R-E”
* In light of the minor volcanic activity that caused a glacial flood in Mýrdalsjökull, I decided to post this article on the recent Grímsvötn eruption. I wrote this following the eruption for a website I edit, but eventually decided against using it. But here it is anyway.