Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag

Geology

Popular SE Iceland glacial lagoon a ticking time bomb: Catastrophic mountain collapse looms

By Staff

  • The Area in Question The material which is believed to be on the move equals several mid sized mountains. Photo/IMO

  • Inspecting one of the deep fractures The first fractures were discovered in 2014. Photo/IMO

  • Svínafellsjökull glacier The section of Svínafell which is breaking apart is is seen on the right. Photo/IMO

Travelers are urged to show extreme caution around Svínafellsjökull glacier in S.E. Iceland. The glacier, which is one of the outlet glaciers of Öræfajökull, the southernmost tip of Vatnajökull glacier, empties into one of the most popular glacial lagoons in Iceland. A giant rockslide could pose a serious threat to hundreds of travelers who visit the lagoon every day.

Svínafellsjökull glacier appears as alien landscape in the Hollywood movie Interstellar.

Catastrophic mountain collapse
Geologists at the Icelandic Meteorological Office have identified deep and extensive fractures in Svínafell mountain which borders the glacier. The fractures are believed to be part of one large fracture system created by the movements of a large part of the mountain which currently towers over the glacier. The surface area of the mountain which is believed to be on the move is 1 km2 (247 acres). The total volume of rock and earth is believed to be up to 60 million m3 (165 million cubic feet). The material could either collapse all at once, or in successive rock falls. 

Read more: Icelandic glaciers have shrunk by 500 square km since turn of the century

The formation of the fracture system is believed to be caused by the retreating of the glacier due to global climate change. As the glacier shrinks and retreats it reveals steep mountain sides, while at the same time removing support ot the rock.

The first fractures were discovered in 2014, but new deep fractures were discovered earlier this spring. Analysis of aerial photos and other data indicate that the fractures are expanding at a rate of 0.4-1.3 cm (x in) each year. More studies are required to determine the exact nature and extent of the fracture system. Additional GPS monitoring equipment has been installed on the mountain and other data will be analyzed to create different models mapping the possible effect of a major rock slide from Svínafell. 

The Icelandic Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management has held meetings with local residents to inform them of the danger. 

Hundreds of travelers visit Svínafell glacier every day. At any given time in summer there are up to a dozen groups at the site. 

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