Lava Flow Slows Down as Gas Pollution Spreads

Volcanic eruption at Sundhnúksgígar

The intensity and size of the volcanic eruption at Sundhnúksgígar on the Reykjanes peninsula has diminished. The lava flow is now estimated to be about one-quarter of what it was when the eruption began just before midnight yesterday and only a third of the original fissure is active.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office has posted an update on the volcanic eruption, based on visual estimates from a reconnaissance flight earlier today. The development of the eruption is similar to the eruption at Fagradalsfjall which began in 2021, where the fissures are starting to contract and form individual eruption vents. Currently there are about five eruption vents spread along the original fissure and the lava fountains are lower than when the eruption began, reaching about 30 meters at their highest.

Pollution noticeable 115 km away

“According to information from scientists who went on a second helicopter flight with the Icelandic Coast Guard at around 04:00 UTC today, the total length of the fissure eruption has not changed much from the beginning,” the notice reads. “There was little activity at the southern end of the fissure near Hagafell, and the majority of the lava flow is heading east towards Fagradalsfjall. Two streams reach west, both north of Stóra-Skógfell.”

At the time of the notice’s publication at 2:30 PM today, the volcanic plume was drifting from west and northwest. “Gas pollution might be noticeable in Vestmannaeyjar today, but not elsewhere in populated areas,” the notice continues, referring to the populated archipelago off the south coast of Iceland, some 115 km from the fissure. “According to the weather forecast, gas pollution might be detected in the capital area late tonight or tomorrow morning.”

More pollution than in previous eruptions

According to a RÚV report, air pollution could be ten times greater than in recent eruptions in the Reykjanes peninsula. The release of sulphur dioxide could be somewhere between 30 and 60 thousand metric tonnes per day. A spike in pollution has already been detected in Selfoss, 68 km east from the fissure and along the coast south of the town of Þorlákshöfn. The amounts in these areas, however, have not reached levels that would endanger public health.

The volcanic eruption in Reykjanes is ongoing. We will continue to update this story as it develops.

Thousands of Cigarette Stubs Wash Up on East Iceland Beach

Svanbjörg Pálsdóttir. Cigarette stubs washed up on the beach in Eskifjörður, East Iceland, August 16, 2023

A resident of Eskifjörður, East Iceland was shocked to see thousands of cigarette stubs washed up on the shore of the fjord yesterday. It is unclear where the cigarette stubs came from but many residents speculate they were dumped by a passing ship. The stubs have since been cleaned by the municipality of Fjarðabyggð. RÚV reported first.

Svanbjörg Pálsdóttir went for a walk on the beach in Eskifjörður yesterday. At first she thought the yellow material dotting the rocks was seaweed but then realised it was thousands of cigarette butts. “Which ships are dumping this into the sea,” she asked in a Facebook post for residents of Eskifjörður, calling on authorities to look into the pollution and stop it from happening again.

Svanbjörg wrote to the municipality of Fjarðabyggð to alert them to the issue. The municipality reacted immediately and had the beach cleaned the same day. It is not clear whether authorities will investigate the source of the pollution at this stage.

Annual Limit on Capital-Area Pollution Already Exceeded

Pollution in the capital area has exceeded the health-protection limit 19 times so far this year, which is more than the permissible number for an entire year, RÚV reports. The law authorises restricting car traffic on days when the limit is exceeded, but such measures have yet to be implemented.

Legal authorisation yet to be translated into regulation

The Environment Agency of Iceland’s air quality metres continually measure the air quality in the city and publishes results every hour. At 6 PM yesterday, the pollution exceeded health protection limits for the nineteenth time in 2023, RÚV reports. According to the regulations of the Ministry of the Environment, the limit can only be exceeded eighteen times a year.

There are no precedents for such high levels of pollution in recent years, according to Svava S. Steinarsdóttir, a health representative at the Reykjavík City Public Health Authority.

“We haven’t seen such high numbers until the last few years,” Svava told RÚV.

The increase goes hand in hand with the increase in car traffic, powered by petrol and diesel. The weather also has its say: calm or little wind combined with the recent day’s frost means that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) hovers over the city for longer periods.

Svava stated that exceeding health-protection limits was serious, given that these limits were set to protect citizens. “We may need to consider encouraging people to use more ecological means of transport.”

Municipalities are authorised by law to restrict traffic on days when pollution is high. However, that authorisation has not yet been translated into regulation.

Svava added that the Environment Agency of Iceland has mentioned radical measures, such as traffic restrictions, in its contingency plans. So far, the agency´s only option is to encourage people to reduce emissions from private cars and studded tires.

Icelandic Student Takes Second Place in European Statistics Competition

Ólöf María Steinarsdóttir, a student at Reykjavík’s Technical College, won second place in the 16-18 age group of the European Statistics Competition (ESC) for her statistical analysis of why Iceland has such high greenhouse gas emissions per capita. RÚV reports that 17,000 students from 19 countries took part in the competition.

The ESC is a competition organized by Eurostat and participating national statistical institutes, aimed at encouraging secondary students to become literate in statistics and official statistical sources. The competition is divided into two phases, national and European. Participants first participate at the national level and then those winners proceed to the European finals. This is the fifth year the competition has been held, but the first year Iceland has participated.

After winning the national competition in Iceland, Ólöf María and her fellow finalists were asked to produce two-minute videos on the environment. “Contestants had to present their findings on what official statistics tell about the environment in their country/region,” explains the press release on the Eurostat website. “The students produced really powerful videos, some even in the form of a rap song. Their message is clear: we need to build (statistical) knowledge about environmental issues and take action!” A jury of European experts reviewed the 66 submissions and selected the top five videos in the 14 – 16 age group (32 submissions) and the 16 – 18 age group (34 submissions). Ólöf María’s video placed second in the latter group, behind the team from Bulgaria. (A description of, and links to, all the top-placing videos can be found here.)

‘The Green Facade: The Story of Iceland Told by Statistics’

In her video, ‘The Green Facade: The Story of Iceland Told by Statistics,’ Ólöf María examines why Iceland produces 5.24x as much in emissions as its larger European neighbours. This despite the fact that on a household-level, emissions are low in Iceland, and have been consistently so for over 25 years. Industry, and most specifically aluminum production, produces 90% of Iceland’s emissions. See the full, two-minute video, in English, below.

Cars With Studded Tires Pollute 40 Times More

smog

Studded tires are a major factor in particulate pollution, RÚV reports. Þorsteinn Jóhansson, an expert at the Environment Agency of Iceland, presented the data in an open meeting today on the impact of studded tires on air quality and road surfaces.

“A car with studded tires wears down [the road] many times over compared to a car without studded tires. That is 20-40 times more. That is not 20-40% more, rather at least 2000% more,” Þorsteinn stated. High levels of particulate pollution occur regularly in Reykjavík in the spring, when the weather is still, road surfaces are dry, and drivers have not yet switched over to summer tires.

While Þorsteinn stated that it is clearly in the interest of those responsible for road maintenance to reduce the use of studded tires, he admitted that the need for such tires varies. “Especially people who live out in the countryside or people who are driving from Selfoss over Hellisheiði. There will certainly be days when it is better to be on studded tires, such as when there is wet ice, then studded tires have the advantage.”

He pointed out that in Norway, a studded tire tax has been imposed to reduce their negative impact. “Studded tires are not banned anywhere in Norway, but there are fees in certain towns, so it is each municipality that decides and there has been an economic incentive to reduce the use of studded tires.” Those who live in the countryside and drive into Oslo can buy a studded tire “passport,” which can be an annual, monthly, or daily pass. Þorsteinn believes such a system could work in Iceland.

“If there is permission to charge, it would certainly only be municipalities in the capital area that would use it. Residents of Ísafjörður would never impose a fee for studded tires.”

Volcanic Smog Over Reykjavík Today and Tomorow

Geldingadalir reykjanes eruption volcano

The Environment Agency of Iceland is measuring raised values of SO2 and sulfate particle (SO4) in the Larger Reykjavík Area. These values are not high enough to encourage people to stay inside, but people sensitive to air pollution can experience symptoms such as burning of the throat or raised asthma symptoms. People are advised to not leave young children outside to sleep. According to information from the Met Office, the volcanic smog will likely remain until late Wednesday or Thursday. 

The Iceland Meteorological Office and the Reykjavík municipality are encouraging people sensitive to pollution to be careful and advise against leaving young children to sleep outside. The haze from the eruption lies over the capital as well as the surrounding area.  Levels of SO2 and sulfate particles are high up to Hvalfjörður north of the city and the Environment Agency’s website indicates that there is considerable pollution in Hveragerði as well. 

Volcanic smog has a characteristically blue-grey tint and is created when SO2, other gasses and particles mix with oxygen and humidity. A notice from the City of Reykjavík states that the haze can cause fatigue, headaches, irritation in the eyes and throat as well as flu-like symptoms. Children and others that are sensitive to pollution should avoid spending long hours outdoors, especially when exercising. The haze is expected to stay over the capital area today and tomorrow, but on Wednesday or Thursday, the winds will change and no longer blow haze towards the city. 

The public is advised to follow updates from the Met office at www.vedur.is/en and the state of pollution at the Environment Agency’s website. 

  • Lung-and heart patients are encouraged to have easy access to their medicines
  • Breathe through the nose and avoid physical exertion outdoors when pollution levels are high.
  • Staying indoors with windows closed and no air conditioning significantly reduces the risk of pollution.
  • Close windows and doors
  • Raise the temperature inside
  • Remember to air out your house as soon as pollution goes down. 
  • Dust masks provide no protection against gas pollution

To monitor the measured values go to https://loftgaedi.is/en?zoomLevel=7&lat=64.894972… and for further information on air pollution during a volcanic eruption https://ust.is/…/air-pollution-during-a-volcanic-eruption/

Further information on the health effects of volcanic smog can be found on the Directorate of Health’s website in Icelandic, English, and Polish.

 

Volcanic Gases Cause Haze and Breathing Issues

Reykjanes Eruption

Gases from the ongoing eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula may lead to fewer sunny days this summer, Vísir reports. Eruption gases have been creating a haze in the capital area in recent days and causing discomfort for people with asthma or other lung conditions. Air quality specialist Þorsteinn Jóhannsson says locals should get into the habit of monitoring air quality in their surroundings.

Though weather has been sunny in the capital area recently, lately the sunshine has been obscured by a mist known as volcanic haze. “Volcanic haze is not the usual ash plume that comes directly from the eruption, which is primarily sulphur dioxide. It can be an old or developed plume that has been floating around for 3-4 days just off the coast and then comes onto land again and then it’s been turned into sulphur particulate matter. That refracts light so it is seen as a haze,” Þorsteinn explains.

According to Þorsteinn, volcanic haze is more common on warm, sunny days and can also boost the formation of regular fog. Though the eruption is on Iceland’s southwest tip, the haze can travel anywhere in the country, such as Akureyri, North Iceland, where it was observed some weeks ago.

Volcanologists have stated the Reykjanes eruption could last years or even decades. “If this eruption persists, we need to put ourselves in eruption air quality gear and keep a close eye on it,” Þorsteinn says. “One can’t recommend running a long race in heavy pollution, it’s usually possible to go between houses, but sensitive people should avoid being outdoors if there is a lot of volcanic haze.”

Air quality in Iceland can be monitored on loftgaedi.is.

Low Air Quality Expected on New Year’s Day in Reykjavík

fireworks new year's eve Reykjavík

Wind speeds will be very low in most places on New Year’s Day, meaning that pollution from fireworks will linger and air quality will be low in areas where many fireworks are set off, the Icelandic Met Office reports.

Firework sales are the main source of fundraising for Iceland’s volunteer-run Search and Rescue organisations. Setting them off on New Year’s Eve is an Icelandic tradition, but has become a subject of debate in recent years due to its polluting effects.

Read More: No Smoke Without Fireworks

Besides buying fireworks, those who wish to support ICE-SAR can purchase seedlings to be planted in Iceland or simply donate directly to the organisation.

Iceland Bans Single-Use Plastics Starting in 2021

Iceland’s Parliament has passed an amendment to the Hygiene and Pollution Prevention Act, which, among other things, bans putting single-use plastics on the market from July 3, 2021. The products that will be banned include single-use cotton buds, plastic cutlery and dishes, straws, and stir sticks. Styrofoam food and drink containers, cups, and glasses will also be prohibited.

The unconditional ban will also cover oxo-plastic products, which are not biodegradable though often marketed as such. “Products from such plastics have made a place for themselves on the market in recent years, especially certain types of plastic bags, but their nature is to break down into microparticles that are harmful to health and the environment and are a growing problem around the world,” a government notice on the legislation states.

The amendment will also impose mandatory labelling on certain disposable plastic products that will remain permitted, such as menstrual products, wet wipes, and certain tobacco products. The labels will provide information about how to properly dispose of the products after use and the negative effects they have on the environment.

Exceptions will be made for products that are classified as medical devices.

Volunteers Collected 2.6 Tonnes of Trash in Nature Reserve Hornstrandir

Trash in Hornstrandir

The volunteer group Hreinni Hornstrandir (Cleaner Hornstrandir) finished its first trash clean-up round of the nature reserve Hornstrandir in the Westfjords, led by Ísafjörður local Gauti Geirsson. Russian vodka and Alaskan shampoo along with fishing equipment and plastics in all shapes and forms were part of this year’s 2.6 tonne haul. Since 2014, the group has headed annually to the area to clean up plastic, trash, and litter over a weekend. A group of twenty volunteers, mainly locals from the Westfjords, collected trash over two days this time around on June 19-20. The main bulk of the weight, close to 80%, is believed to be derived from the fishing industry such as buoys and nets.

Historically, the area has received large amounts of driftwood from all around the world. In the last couple of years, plastics have been a large part of the trash. “Fishing gear, nets, buoys, plastic packaging, containers. Every kind of plastic. You’ll find it all there,” says Gauti. “One year we found a cognac bottle with Arabic lettering, it makes no sense that it wound up in Hornstrandir. We’ve found experimental buoys, transmitters. Stuff from both sides of the Atlantic. The trash comes from all around. USA, Canada, UK, Norway, Spain, and from the whole of the North Atlantic area.”

The volunteer group along with the crew of the coast guard vessel Þór. Photo from Hreinni Hornstrandir/Geir Sigurðsson

5 years between clean-up in Hornvík

This year’s outing was a milestone trip as the first round of clean-up was now completed, by cleaning the coves Smiðjuvík, Bjarnarnes, and Hrollaugsvík. The group also headed back for a second round in Hornvík. Hornvík was originally cleaned in 2015 when volunteers picked close to two tonnes of trash in the area. Five years later, 1.1 tonnes of trash was the haul.

Gauti Geirsson started the initiative in 2014 with the goal of removing trash in the nature reserve and to raise the issue of plastic and other trash in the ocean. “What lit the spark was when I was working on passenger boats heading with travellers to the area. I was taking a French photographer to the area, and he wanted to take a photo of Hornbjarg cliff. But he was so appalled by the amount of trash in the area. He took photos of the trash instead and ended up opening an exhibition in France. I thought to myself that I had to something about it, and the idea of the clean-up came up,” Gauti says. “I needed a foreigner to open my eyes towards the issue, as I had become accustomed to it, seeing the driftwood and the trash from the fishing industry. At the time, I didn’t know any better than that these matters were in good shape, but we have to get the plastic out of there before it starts breaking down into nature.”

Gauti Geirsson along with Óli Rafn Kristinsson. Photo from Hreinni Hornstrandir / Geir Sigurðsson

“It was a matter of pride. For the first trip, it was more a case of we have been caught with our pants down and we must do something about it. Then, over time, factors such as ensuring biodiversity in the area and protecting the ecosystem come into play. There were microparticles of plastic breaking down there. We have been trying to raise awareness on this issue. There’s not only trash out on the ocean but we’re also seeing a lot of trash blow from land out onto the ocean and beaches, so people really have to watch what they throw and where,” Gauti adds.

2.6 tonne haul

Although 2.6 tonnes sound a large number, the record amount for one trip is 9 tonnes in 2018, collected by a group of 50 people. “It was a great weekend, with a particularly good group of volunteers, it’s a key to our operation to have good people with us, as it’s hard work. Yes, 2.6. tonnes are fine. One should be happy that it is not more. The main goal is that the amount decreases year from year and that the area becomes as clean from trash as possible. But note that the areas we covered this time around are not large in size, as most of them were relatively small coves,” Gauti says, referring to Smiðjuvík, Bjarnarnes, and Hrollaugsvík.

Geir Sigurðsson with a haul. Photo from Hreinni Hornstrandir

Starting a movement

The group hopes that the Hornstrandir clean-up raises awareness of trash in the ocean. “Plastic in the ocean is a large problem, and especially so for a fishing nation such as Iceland. The plastic particles end up in the fish, which we export to other countries. Who wants to eat a fish full of plastic? So, all kinds of factors started to come into play once we dove deeper into the subject,” said Gauti, who studies at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromso. He hopes that others may follow suit around the world and organize clean-ups in their local area. “It’s for self-motivation as well. I was 22 when I started this, and if a 22-year-old wants to make a change in the world he should just do it – rather than waiting for someone else to do it. To inspire others to take on issues such as these. If everyone does their part, the workload is not too heavy,” Gauti says.

“I want to encourage people to do what they can. Both in daily consumption and in caring for the environment. And to clean up trash. It does not need to be a full-scale clean-up with a coast guard vessel by your side. It is just as effective to clean 10 kilograms of trash in your local beach as it is here in Hornstrandir,” Gauti states.

A mound of trash in Smiðjuvík beach. Photo from Hreinni Hornstrandir/Geir Sigurðsson

Joint operation with Coast Guard

As the area is a nature reserve, it takes some effort to remove the trash from the isolated beaches. “The trips vary each year, depending on the surroundings as Hornstrandir is a diverse area. Fishing nets and ropes get stuck in sand beaches while plastic containers and buoys are wedged in between large stones in more rocky beaches. The group has been comprised of between 20-50 people, depending on the size of the clean-up area,” Gauti adds.

Icelandic Coast Guard assisting the volunteers. Photo from Hreinni Hornstrandir/Geir Sigurðsson

The Icelandic Coast Guard assists with the clean-up and has done so since 2015. “It’s fantastic to have the Coast Guard with us. We could not do it without them. It can create a certain uncertainty, however, as they could be called upon for assistance elsewhere at any time. So, we’ve got a plan A, B, and C,” he says. Borea Adventures, a local tour operator, brought the volunteers over from Ísafjörður to the clean-up area, while the coast guard vessel Þór transported the volunteers back, along with the tonnes trash. Once in port, The Environmental Agency of Iceland and the municipality of Ísafjörður handle the disposal of the trash.

Hornstrandir natural reserve

Located in the Westfjords, Hornstrandir is Iceland’s northernmost peninsula and has been protected since 1975. The last locals left the area in the 1950s, leaving the area uninhabited. An area of great natural beauty and harsh weather, it is popular with hikers. Hornstrandir is home to swathes of birds in the towering cliffs, as well as being a refuge for the arctic fox.

For further news on the initiative – head to www.facebook.com/hreinnihornstrandir