Eruption in Grímsvötn in 1998. ISVOLC will study the influence of ongoing glacial retreat on magmatic activity at four volcanic systems in Iceland: Grímsvötn, Bárðarbunga, Katla and Askja. (Photo: The Icelandic Met Office / Oddur Sigurðsson)

New project on effects of climate change induced ice-retreat on seismic and volcanic activity

One of four projects that received a grant-of-excellence from the Icelandic Research Fund


Glaciers in Iceland have been retreating since 1890 and climate change simulations predict that the majority of them may disappear within a few hundred years. Retreating ice caps have a large influence on the crust of the Earth and cause ground uplift – a rebound effect resulting from unloading of the glaciers due to ice loss. Glacier covered volcanic systems are most affected, but also crustal conditions outside glaciers. Eruption activity may increase, as occurred during the Pleistocene deglaciation. However, it is uncertain if, how and when this new magma reaches the surface, if stability of existing magma bodies is modified, if deglaciation is already resulting in accumulation of larger volumes of melt within crustal reservoirs, and how induced variations in the stress field may affect future volcanic and seismic activity.

Dr. Michelle Maree Parks, a specialist in volcano deformation studies at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, together with Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a geophysicist at the Nordic Volcanological Center at the Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, lead a project that received a grant-of-excellent from the Icelandic Research Fund that addresses these questions. They will together form a large international team of scientists to carry out research on glacial isostatic adjustment due to present day glacier change and its effect on the Earth‘s crust, in particular at four volcanic systems and two seismic zones in Iceland.

Important to understand the influence of climate change on magmatic activity and earthquakes

The project, named ISVOLC, will use new models of glacier variations in Iceland during the past century and scenarios for continued glacial retreat, to estimate the influence of glacial retreat on crustal movements and new melt accumulation beneath Iceland. Uplift due to glacial isostatic adjustment caused by glacier retreat since 1890 is already causing over 20 mm/yr uplift over large areas near the Vatnajökull ice cap and influencing all of Iceland and more melt is being generated at depth as a result of glacially induced pressure changes. The influence of these processes on eruptive activity and earthquakes in Iceland will be evaluated, to improve understanding of natural hazards. ´This grant opens new possibilities to improve our understanding of the influence of climate change on the Earth processes.  The goal is also to estimate the influence of retreating ice caps on stability of magma chambers, that may then influence how we monitor volcanoes and respond to eruptions´ says Michelle that leads the project on behalf of the Icelandic Meteorological Office. ´This is an exciting and important research project because of the influence of climate change is widespread in nature, including influence deep into the Earth´, says Freysteinn. The project adds to ongoing extensive collaboration between the Icelandic Meteorological Office and the University of Iceland and provides new opportunities for Ph.D. students and young scientists to participate in that collaboration.

The project duration is three years, with support in the initial year from the Icelandic Research Fund of about 57 million ISK. The fund supports projects in all fields of science, with a spectrum of grant types ranging from support to individual Ph.D. students to grants-of-excellence. Grants of excellence are awarded to a few, large outstanding projects with international relevance.  A total of 20 applications were received for grant-of-excellence and four projects received funding.

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