Sinking and Heaving land, threats of Landslides and Tsunamis
Iceland Faces it all
An Introduction to Iceland
The Republic of Iceland is a small island of 317,000, with a surface area just shy of the state of Kentucky (Iceland 2022). It is situated between Greenland and Norway in the sub-arctic region. Boasting over 200 volcanoes, 80 nature preserves, and stunning ice caps, Iceland is a sight to behold (Iceland 2022). But climate change is becoming a great threat to this small island. The IPCC predicts with a very high confidence level that increased temperatures affects both Iceland’s glaciers and permafrost (IPCC 2019).
What climate disasters does Iceland face?
Eleven percent of Iceland’s surface area is ice caps, but that percentage is rapidly decreasing, losing 10.9 gigatons a year from 2004-20012 (Jakobsdottir 2019, Moon 2018). The Okjökull, also known as the Ok glacier, which use to span six square miles, melted entirely by 2019 (Jakobsdottir 2019). Other ice masses are following suit, most concernedly, the Vatnajökull icecap in southeastern Iceland. Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap in Iceland containing 80% of Iceland’s ice (Moon 2018). It consists of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is also referred to as the Eastern Arm (Baurley 2020). During the most recent small ice age this glacier advanced, carving a deep trough in the landscape that is still partially underneath the glacier (Baurley 2020; Carrivick and Tweed 2020; Guðmundsson 2019). As temperatures rose leading to persistent melting, water was trapped in this trough forming the largest proglacial lake in Iceland, called Jökulsárlón (Baurley 2020; Carrivick and Tweed 2020; Guðmundsson 2019). The Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is 1700 meters above sea level, is melting, bringing glacial water, slush, and chunks of ice cascading down into the proglacial lake (Baurley 2020; Guðmundsson 2019). Using satellites to sense the ice cap, Baurley et al., determined that the Vatnajökull ice cap, particularly the Eastern Arm, is melting at greater rates, from a meter a day to 3.5 meters a day in just 24 years (2020; Guðmundsson 2019). Since 1982 the eastern arm has retreated 3.5km and Jökulsárlón has grown by 20 square kilometers (Baurley 2020; Guðmundsson 2019).
Glacial Outburst Floods (GLOF)
Proglacial lakes eat away at the ice and can suddenly burst, flooding nearby villages. Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) are referred to as jökulhlaups by natives and are also triggered by seismic activity (Carrivick and Tweed 2019). GLOFs have become such a common threat to villages near the Vatnajökull ice cap that the Icelandic government developed a warning system for evacuation of the nearby locals (Wolken 2021). GLOFs may increase in frequency due to glacial melt, posing risk to nearby villages (Carrivick and Tweed 2019, Wolken 2021).
Glacial melt and the loss of Okjökull are also causing land upheaval in Iceland. Icecaps apply great pressure on the terrestrial environment, so as they melt that pressure is alleviated. Compton and Hreinsdóttir used 62 GPS instruments across Iceland to calculate the velocity the land is rising (2015). They were able to back calculate to the most recent period of 0 velocity, which is effectively the time before upheaval. They found this period matched the initiation of ice melt, demonstrating a strong correlation between ice melt and upheaval in Iceland. In some regions the pace of upheaval is as much as 1.4 inches of land rise per year (Compton and Hreinsdóttir 2015). The swelling land has damaged underground pipes, cutting off Icelander’s access to water, as well as damaging their waste removal systems, and threatening the structural integrity of their infrastructure (Gricius-Abbott 2021).
There are also psychological implications for glacial loss as well. Brooke and Williams discuss the therapeutic benefits of Iceland’s icecaps for visitors. The white contrasting the black lava stones provokes feelings of unfamiliarity, taking tourists away from their usual forms of existence, leading to positive effects on the psyche (Brooke and Williams 2021). Witnessing such a unique and stark landscape melt away may have the opposite impact on visitors and locals, instead inciting feelings of doom. The impacts however are not entirely negative, as the growth of proglacial lakes is bolstering Iceland’s aquifers, providing fresh water for nearby communities (Dochartaigh 2019).
Image: Guide to Iceland- Creative Commons
Permafrost is frozen soil that often contain some ice, called ground ice (Sæmundsson 2019). Etzelmüller et al. determined that Iceland’s periglacial regions have contained permafrost for thousands of years (2020). In the Pleistocene era, which was the era right before our current one, 20% of Iceland’s terrestrial environment was permafrost. This has dictated Iceland’s land formation, establishing steep slopes and ridges via the sturdy frozen permafrost soil (Etzelmüller 2020). As record temperatures are being seen in permafrost regions across the world, Iceland is seeing thawing in their periglacial regions (IPCC 2019, Morino 2021, Czekirda 2019). From 1980-1989 11% of Iceland was permafrost, but that percentage dropped to only 7% in the 2010-2016 time period (Czekirda 2019). Diminishing permafrost is causing two main problems: landslides and subsidence.
Rock avalanches, debris flows, and landslides, referred to as rapid mass movements are a common hazard to Icelandic towns (Sæmundsson 2019). Usually, they are triggered by volcanic activity, snowmelt, and or changes in precipitation and temperature (Sæmundsson 2019). In the last decade however, three unexpected landslides occurred, the Móafellshyrna, Árnesfjall, and Torfufell mountain landslides. Studies have determined melting permafrost was an added cause (Sæmundsson 2019, Morino 2021, Czekirda 2019, Helgason 2018).
As the ground ice thaws, water seeps into the ground disaggregating soil, which leads to the destabilization of slopes, mountains, and ridges. It is well established among the scientific community that the thawing of permafrost increases the risk of landslides (Morino 2021).
Melting of ground ice decreases the volume of the soil, as frozen water takes up more space than its liquid form, causing the land to sink inward. Subsidence can cause collapsed holes in the ground or simply depressions. Both of which are hazardous for nearby infrastructure, which can crack, become deformed, or even collapse from the shifting ground (Ramage 2021; Wolken 2021). Melting permafrost also decreases the structural ability of soil, diminishing its capacity to withstand infrastructure (Wolken 2021). It can also cause an increased flow of groundwater leading to the drainage of vital freshwater lakes (Wolken 2021). Iceland is projected to be permafrost free by 2050, so more intense landslides, subsidence, and drainage of aquafers is in this island’s near future (Ramage 2021).
The alleviation of pressure due to melting glaciers opens underground magma chambers that can feed nearby volcanoes, thus increasing volcanic activity (Masih 2018). Masih et al. attributed an increase of seismic activity in Alaska to climate change, demonstrating the possibility of this occurring in other cryosphere countries (2018). In an ironic twist of fate, climate change may increase volcanic activity in Iceland (Masih 2018). However, seismic activity could cause hazards such as landslides and GLOFs (Carrivick 2019).
Image: Jesús Rodríguez Fernández Flickr
Exposures and Vulnerabilities
How at risk is Iceland? What hazards are certain regions exposed to, and are they vulnerable?
The Reykjanes peninsula, home to the capital Reykyavik, is the lowest point in Iceland, exposing it to oceanic threats, such as sea level rise (Iceland 2022). This region also has troubles with subsidence (Iceland 2022).
The Reykjanes peninsula in South-west Iceland is situated on the Reykjanes Ridge plate boundary, which use to be an active volcanic site. There, however, has not been volcanic activity in Iceland for 800 years, causing this ridge plate to sink from the lack of volcanic material. This has lead to infrastructural struggles for villages, while also increasing their vulnerability to sea level rise (Ástvaldsson 2019).
The lack of volcanic activity coupled with permafrost thawing has caused the terrain to shift downward, increasing their vulnerability to sea level rise (Iceland 2022). From 1997-2007 sea level increased by 3.4 mm a year in Reykjavik. If subsidence is factored in, the ocean’s proximity to the city is increasing by 5.5 mm a year (Iceland 2022).
Far north, mountains are safe from sea level rise, but are vulnerable to landslides. Northern and North-west Iceland are mountainous regions laden with permafrost, making them susceptible to hazards caused by warming temperatures (IPCC 2019). The Tröllaskagi peninsula contains the coldest permafrost in Iceland, but the region is experiencing warming (Sæmundsson 2018; Czekirda 2019). This peninsula is particularly vulnerable, because it has the tallest mountains in Iceland, exposing it to high winds, which can cause avalanches (Sæmundsson 2018). It is also very steep; a key trait that increases the risk of slope failure (Sæmundsson 2018). At such a high altitude the peninsula receives a lot of precipitation, such as snow and sleet, with the tip of the peninsula where the town of Siglufjörður is, being the most snow prone (Sæmundsson 2018; Czekirda 2019). Strong winds and heavy precipitation, which has been linked to both the Móafellshyrna and Torfufell landslides (Sæmundsson 2018; Helgason 2018). Due to the historical deglaciation of the area these mountainsides are also riddled with fractures and instable bedrock, coupling this with thawing permafrost manifests the perfect storm for serious landslides (Sæmundsson 2018). This entire peninsula is also situated on a tectonic plate boundary, causing frequent earthquakes shaking the mountainsides (Sæmundsson 2018). The slope side of the Móafellshyrna mountain in the Tröllaskagi region gave out in 2012 due to a combination of heavy precipitation, seismic activity, and permafrost melt (Sæmundsson 2018; Helgason 2018). 312,000 to 480,000 cubic meters of rock and ice cascaded down its frontal side (Sæmundsson 2018). Fortunately, the villages of the Tröllaskagi peninsula are all farther north on the coast, a safe distance from this unstable mountain (Sæmundsson 2018). However, towns have suffered from avalanches in the past, such as 9 people dying in Siglufjörður in 1919 (Grímsdóttir 2008). Variable precipitation and melting permafrost both caused by climate change may increase the likelihood of deadly landslides in the future (IPCC 2019; Sæmundsson 2018).
In North-west Iceland the biggest landslide to impact an Icelandic populated area occurred on the 18th of December, 2020 in Seyðisfjörður (Landslide 202; Matti 2022). The mountain took out 12 buildings, ten of which were houses, damaging most beyond repair (Matti 2022). Relocation did occur before the landslide reached the village, however the size was underestimated, so some people scarcely missed the oncoming rush of sediment; fortunately, no one was injured (Landslide 2021). The region experienced 569 mm of rain in only five days, reaching 66% of Reykjavík’s average total rainfall for the year (Landslide 2021). Increased precipitation and heat during winter are strong indicators of avalanches and landslides (Bartsch 2020). Given this was the most rain to fall in a five-day period in Iceland, the Iceland Met office warned locals to evacuate (Landslide 2021). These permafrost slopes, however, do not show any prehistoric signs of past landslides; a true testament to the increased vulnerability of periglacial regions (Landslide 2021)
Freysnes and Svínafell
On the Southern side of this Island the Freysnes and Svínafell villages face problems due to melting glaciers. These two villages reside by the Svinafeilsjökull glacier, which is part of the Vatnajökull ice cap (Matti 2021). Their proximity to the ice cap and a proglacial lake acts as direct exposure to upheaval and GLOFs (Wolken 2021, Compton and Hreinsdóttir 2015).
But scientists are more concerned about a threatening landslide that seems imminent. The nearby Svínafellsheiði mountain in Southern Iceland has a giant fracture in the side of it, due to the Svinafeilsjökull glacier shifting and melting beneath it (Matti 2021; Porsteinn 2019). Researching this fracture has revealed that it will likely break off all at once, causing between 60-100 million cubic meters of rock to dislodge and fall onto the Svinafeilsjökull glacier, subsequently ripping chunks of glacial ice off to join in its plunge in the proglacial lake below (Matti 2022; Matti 2021). This could expose the downstream towns Freysnes and Svínafell, to a large tsunami (Matti 2022; Matti 2021).
Conducting personal interviews of the town’s member however, revealed a strong local knowledge of the situation (Matti 2021). These villages have many shepherds, a traditional and culturally significant practice in Iceland (Helgadottir 2011; Ögmundardóttir 2011). They graze their sheep beyond the village, often venturing around the top of Svínafellsheiði mountain (Matti 2021). They act as mountain monitors, observing any change in stability and reporting it back to their village. they have been able to predict not only landslides, but also GLOFs (Matti 2014). In fact, the fracture was discovered by village sheep herders in 2014 (Matti 2021). this deep understanding of their land makes them resilient in the face of Climate change.
These two villages are also close to Grímsvötn, the most active volcano in all of Iceland, which erupts once every ten years. As a result, these villages have also experienced glacial floods before, reducing their vulnerability to a landslide caused tsunami (Matti 2021). The villages also were aware that there was a large rock formation deposited by the glacier, known as moraines, that push glacial melt to either side, protecting the towns (Matti 2021). Locals believe the tsunami will follow the same path. Scientists, however, are still concerned as their model shows an increase in water volume of the proglacial lake could put the villages at risk; a valid concern given how fast Jökulsárlón increased in size (Matti 2021, Baurley 2020). The strong knowledge of their surrounding land however, does decrease their vulnerability to climate change, demonstrating the importance of local knowledge.
Image: MaxxGirr pixabay
"A farmer knows his land very well… they go year after year after year to the same places”- A villager during an interview (Matti 2021)
Southern Iceland's Economy
Along with Freysnes and Svínafell there are several other small villages living on the coast by the Vatnajökull ice cap, such as Höfn. They are exposed to upheaval, and GLOFs, along with a looming economic crisis (Compton and Hreinsdóttir 2015, Welling 2020). These villages economies are vulnerable to climate change as they have shifted from a reliance on sheep herding to glacier tourism, including glacial walks on nearby glaciers such as Svinafeilsjökull (Welling 2020, Matti 2021). As glaciers begin to shrink and stability becomes a safety concern, tourism is decreasing (Welling 2020). These villages may suffer from economic stagnation in a time when massive adaptation spending is necessary to protect themselves from landslides and GLOFs (Welling 2020).
What is Iceland doing to adjust to a new reality?
Current State of Adaptation:
Increasing the efficiencies of their hydropower to reap the temporary extra power from the run-off of glacier melt (Government of Iceland).
Iceland has not adopted a national adaptation strategy and Iceland is heavily mitigation focused (Government of Iceland; Jóhannesson 2019).
Iceland's Adaptation Plan (University of Iceland 2012)
- Creating a research committee to keep Iceland up to date with the impacts and suggest adaptation policies
Sea level Rise
- Southwest Iceland most vulnerable
- Levees and piers have been used against sea level rise, but prove to be unsuccessful
- Build defenses around the low lying land
- Considering sea level rise with urban planning and harbor construction
- Soil Conservation Service of Iceland founded 1907
- Monitor grazing of sheep to decrease overgrazing
- Improve ability to predict landslides
- Not threatened by climate change to a concerning level.
Tourism companies do not believe climate change is a serious threat to their industry and are taking a wait and see approach adapting only when immediately necessary and with no prior planning (Welling 2020; Welling 2019). Education of the industry members is therefore the first adaptation step needed to protect the economies of Southern Iceland.
Both Seltjarnarnes and Álftanes have already stacked large rocks as barricades from the ocean (Ástvaldsson 2019).
Transdisciplinary Adaptation Strategies (Jóhannesson 2019)
Other governmental documents for different disciplines, like land use, do discuss climate adaptation. Below are the basic strategies.
- Rural area planning to avoid building in unstable ground
- Considering climate change risks such as sea level rise, subsidence, upheaval, and Landslides when municipalities are expanding, rebuilding, etc.
Given the uniqueness of hazards per regional area of Iceland, regional and local adaptation planning are imperative for Iceland's future.
About the Author
Rae Dunbar graduated St. Lawrence University in 2023 with a bachelors degree in Environmental Studies and Biology and a math minor. She has the lifelong goal of becoming a prominent force in the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. She researched, wrote, and designed this webpage for Jon Rosale's Adapt to Climate Change course in her Junior year. Having both Icelandic heritage and an upcoming study abroad in Iceland, Rae decided to take on this research project.
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