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Report on Grimsvotn (Iceland) — 27 October-2 November 2004


Smithsonian / US Geological Survey Weekly Volcanic Activity Report,
27 October-2 November 2004
Managing Editor: Gari Mayberry

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2004. Report on Grimsvotn (Iceland). In: Mayberry, G (ed.), Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, 27 October-2 November 2004. Smithsonian Institution and US Geological Survey.

Weekly Report (27 October-2 November 2004)



64.416°N, 17.316°W; summit elev. 1719 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

According to scientists from the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland and the Icelandic Meteorological Office, an eruption began at the subglacial Grímsvötn volcano on 1 November around 2100. The eruption was preceded by both long-term and short-term precursors, and was triggered by the release of overburden pressure associated with a glacial outburst flood (jokulhlaup), originating from the Grímsvötn subglacial caldera lake.

Seismicity originally increased at the volcano in mid-2003, about the same time uplift exceeded a maximum reached in 1998 [(the last eruption at Grímsvötn was in December 1998)]. Additional uplift and expansion of the volcano [was also detected since mid-2003]. Seismicity further increased in late October 2004, and on 26 October high-frequency tremor indicated increased water flow from the caldera lake and suggested that a glacial outburst flood was about to begin. On 29 October, the amount of discharge increased in the Skeidara River. About 3 hours before the eruption began an intense swarm of volcanic earthquakes started, changing to continuous low-frequency tremor at the onset of the eruption. The release in overburden pressure associated with the outburst flood triggered the eruption. The amount of drop in water level in the Grímsvötn caldera at the onset of the eruption is uncertain, but was probably on the order of 10-20 m, corresponding to a pressure change of 0.1-0.2 MPa at the volcano's surface. This modest pressure change triggered the eruption because internal pressure in the Grímsvötn shallow magma chamber was high after continuous inflow of magma to the volcano since 1998.

The London VAAC reported that the ash plume produced from the eruption reached a height of ~12.2 km a.s.l. According to news articles, the eruption occurred in an unpopulated region so no evacuations were needed, but air traffic was diverted away from the region.

Observations on 2 November revealed that the eruption was occurring from a circular vent ~1 km in diameter in the SE part of the volcano's crater. The ice thickness in this part of the Grímsvötn caldera was ~200 m prior to the eruption. On 3 November, eruptive activity occurred in pulses, resulting in a changing eruption column height from 8-9 km to 13-14 km above the volcano. The ash fall sector extended at least 150 km from the eruption site. The distal ash plume was observed in Norway, Finland, and Sweden.

Geological Summary. Grímsvötn, Iceland's most frequently active volcano in recent history, lies largely beneath the vast Vatnajökull icecap. The caldera lake is covered by a 200-m-thick ice shelf, and only the southern rim of the 6 x 8 km caldera is exposed. The geothermal area in the caldera causes frequent jökulhlaups (glacier outburst floods) when melting raises the water level high enough to lift its ice dam. Long NE-SW-trending fissure systems extend from the central volcano. The most prominent of these is the noted Laki (Skaftar) fissure, which extends to the SW and produced the world's largest known historical lava flow in 1783. The 15 km3 basaltic Laki lavas were erupted over a 7-month period from a 27-km-long fissure system. Extensive crop damage and livestock losses caused a severe famine that resulted in the loss of one-fifth of the population of Iceland.

Sources: London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), Associated Press, Reuters, Institute of Earth Sciences