Glacial Outburst Flood Likely Begun in Skaftá Skip to content

Glacial Outburst Flood Likely Begun in Skaftá

By Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

Photo: Páll Stefánsson. From the Skaftá glacial outburst flood in 2015.

Electrical conductivity readings from the Skaftá river have increased and water levels by Sveinstindur have increased this morning, signifying that a glacial outburst flood is in progress. It is likely that the flood originated from the western Skaftá ice cauldron which last drained in 2019, although it is not impossible that a flood from the eastern cauldron might follow.

In addition to rising water levels and increased electrical conductivity, the Iceland Meteorological Office has also been notified of sulfuric smell in the area around Skaftá and Hverfisfljót. It is believed that the changes are not due to melting glaciers or rain, but rather that a glacial outburst flood has begun. Data suggests that the flood origin is in the western ice cauldron in the Vatnajökull glacier, which last flooded in September 2019. The western ice cauldron usually produces smaller floods than the eastern one.

The flow of Skaftá by Sveinstindur was around 290 m3/s at noon today but the Met Office doesn’t expect the maximum flow during this flood to surpass 750 m3/s. However, there is a possibility that water drains from the eastern ice cauldron on the heels of the current flood from the western one, as happened in August 2018.

It’s important that everyone who is travelling in the flood area is conscious of the situations that can arise and that travellers are well informed of the situations:

  • Flood conditions are expected in Skaftá over the next two to three days. Some flooding of unpaved roads close to Skaftá is possible.
  • Hydrogen sulphide is released from the floodwater as it drains from the Vatnajökull ice-cap. The gas is particularly potent at the ice margin, where concentrations will reach poisonous levels. Travellers must stay away from the edges of Skaftárjökull, Tungnaárjökull and Síðujökull while the flood occurs.
  • Crevasses will develop rapidly around the ice cauldron, so travellers on Vatnajökull should stay away from the region, including the lower part of Skaftárjökull and Tungnaárjökull, where floodwater could burst through the surface.

Floods in Skaftá are sourced from two ice cauldrons, formed due to persistent geothermal activity beneath Vatnajökull. On average, the cauldrons drain every two years, producing floods of up to 1,500 cubic metres per second. When the interval between floods is short, the flood tends to be smaller. The eastern cauldron is responsible for the largest floods. The river has flooded at least 58 times since 1955, with each cauldron usually draining at a two-year interval.

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