Image: Screenshot from RÚV.

Increasing Danger of Landslides in Iceland

 In Nature, News

Experts say landslides are becoming more common in Iceland, partially around glaciers and along the island’s south coast. Geologist and landslide researcher Þorsteinn Sæmundsson told RÚV there is a need to increase monitoring of areas which are at risk of such geological events, especially those which happen to be popular tourist sites.

“Rockfalls and landslides are of course natural geological processes where external forces are evening out the earth,” says Þorsteinn. “But now, since 1990, there appears to be an increase in large landslides [in Iceland]. Whether that’s exactly connected to climate change or not, that’s of course difficult to say.”

Risk of flood

“We are seeing an increased frequency of landslides and rockfalls on glaciers,” says Þorsteinn. Landslides that occur above outlet glaciers such as Svínafellsjökull carry additional danger. They may cause sudden tidal waves by displacing water in the glacial lagoons below. It’s a simple question of physics, Þorsteinn explains. “You can try it yourself at home, you can fill your bathtub with water and jump in, and then you’ll see how the water goes out.”

A large crevasse which has formed above Svínafellsjökull outlet glacier in South Iceland is one location being carefully monitored by experts for this reason. “We are producing a risk assessment there which is in the works,” says geologist Jón Kristinn Helgason of the Icelandic Met Office. Jón says that increased occurrences of large landslides are encouraging more research and monitoring at the institution.

SvínafellsheiðiA screenshot from RÚV.

Crevasse in Svínafellsheiði above Svínafellsjökull.

Danger to tourists

Non-glacial areas are also becoming more prone to landslides. Þorsteinn says the most likely reason is warming soil. “With that, slopes which we have until now considered to be stable become suddenly unstable.” The South Coast of Iceland, which features the world’s most powerful waves, is also of concern, including popular tourist sites such as Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara black sand beach. “While the nature there is both beautiful and magnificent, it’s also incredibly dangerous,” says Þorsteinn. “This is a changed situation which we need to take seriously and monitor.”

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