Glacial Outburst Flood Has Begun in Grímsvötn

Vatnajökull Grímsfjall Grímsvötn Bárðarbunga Kverkfjöll Jöklar Jökull Vísindi

A glacial outburst flood has begun in Grímsvötn beneath Vatnajökull glacier, experts have confirmed. An M4.3 earthquake at Grímsfjall this morning alerted experts to increased activity at the site. While such floods are known to increase the likelihood of volcanic eruptions, there are no indications an eruption is imminent at the site.

In an interview with RÚV, Professor of Geophysics Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson confirmed the glacial outburst flood began several days ago in the highland region. Elevated water levels have already reached inhabited areas further south, but they are not significant. “There is more water in Gígjukvísl river,” Magnús Tumi stated. “However, this is not a big event, it just looks like the summer water levels. It’s not a lot and it’s equivalent to a small or medium-sized glacial outburst flood in Skaftá river.”

Strongest earthquake in a long time

The M4.3 earthquake that occurred just before 7:00 AM this morning is “noteworthy,” according to Magnús Tumi. He says it’s “the biggest one we know of there for a very long time.” The earthquake hasn’t been followed by others of a similar magnitude, however, and appears to be a one-off event.

What is a glacial outburst flood?

Grímsvötn is an active volcano located beneath Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier. It has the highest eruption frequency of all the volcanoes in Iceland, but is located far from any inhabited areas. The geothermal and volcanic activity at Grímsvötn causes regular glacial outburst floods, known as jökulhlaup. Such outbursts are triggered by geothermal heating beneath the glacier which causes ice to melt, and eventually be abruptly released from beneath the glacier, into the surrounding water systems.

Magnús Tumi says Grímsvötn is now in a period of increased activity, which typically lasts between 60-80 years. It last erupted in 2011.

Stricter Policy for Fish Farms Following Escapes

Golli. Norwegian divers catch escaped farmed salmon in an Icelandic river, October 2023

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir presented the draft of a new legal framework for fish farming in Iceland yesterday. The draft proposes increased monitoring of fish farms and requiring licence holders to pay “a fair price” for the use of natural resources. Escaped salmon from open-net fish farms in the Westfjords have been found in rivers across Northwest Iceland and the Westfjords in recent weeks, threatening the survival of the country’s wild salmon.

“Fee collection from the sector must reflect that [fish farming] is a matter of utilising limited resources,” Svandís stated. “It is fundamental that those who profit from the use of the country’s natural resources pay a fair price for it. But it is equally important that we set ourselves ambitious, measurable goals in environmental matters and set a timetable on the way to those goals.” The objectives and strategy in the draft extend to the year 2040 and the action plan to the year 2028.

Companies can lose farming licences if fish escape

The draft also includes additional funding for research and monitoring of fish farms, to be carried out by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) and the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (Hafrannsóknastofnun). At a press conference yesterday, the Head Secretary of the Food and Agriculture Ministry Kolbeinn Árnason stated that the new regulations would be enforce through the introduction of both positive and negative incentives.

“With tax incentives on the one hand, positive incentives so that people invest in equipment so that the risk [of escaped fish] will be lower,” Kolbeinn stated. “Then we have negative incentives, which include that the company will bear responsibility for escape incidents. The consequences for a company of such an escape will be in the form of the government stripping that company of a permanent fish farming licence.”

Read More: Damning Report on Iceland’s Fish Farming Industry

The draft regulations also propose limiting farming in each fjord to a single company in order to facilitate investigation in the case of escaped fish and to limit the spread of disease. There are currently multiple fjords where more than one company is operating fish farms, particularly in the Westfjords. Companies would have until 2028 to swap licences so that only one company is operating in each zone.

Open-net salmon farms dominate industry

Open-net fish farming in Icelandic waters has grown more than tenfold between 2014 and 2021. Yearly production rose from under 4,000 tonnes to nearly 45,000 tonnes over this period. More than 99% of that production was farmed salmon.

The export value of agricultural products in 2021 was more than ISK 36 billion [$254 million; 237 million]. Most of that figure, or 76%, was farmed salmon, according to RÚV. The aquaculture industry has played a role in supporting development in the Westfjords and Eastfjords, but the largest fish farming companies in Iceland are Norwegian-owned. Escaped salmon from fish farms threatens the survival of wild salmon in Iceland through genetic mixing as well as the spread of disease.

Unusually Dry Summer in West and Southeast Iceland

Stykkishólmur - Stykkishólmshöfn - Breiðafjörður - Snæfellsnes

Rivers and streams have been shrinking and even drying up entirely following several weeks with little to no rainfall in Iceland. In Stykkishólmur, West Iceland, where measurements stretch back to 1857, last July was the second-driest one on record. In West and Southwest Iceland, rainfall has been less than 10% of the average for July and early August, according to Meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson.

“Around July 20 it caught my attention that for example east of Lómagnúpur mountain [in Southeast Iceland] there were already numerous dry streambeds,” Einar wrote yesterday on his Facebook page, where he maintains a weather blog. “It was impossible to find usable drinking water. That was about four weeks ago. Since then, there has been almost no rain in that area.”

While Iceland experienced a rather wet spring, the weather shifted in July across most of the country, with Stykkishólmur reporting just 4.7 mm of rainfall that month and only 0.5 mm since. In Höfn, Southeast Iceland, rainfall measured 11.6 mm, a record low (although notably, the town’s records do not go as far back as those in Stykkishólmur).

Einar observes that the dry spell has affected water levels in many rivers across the country, even glacial rivers fed by meltwater during the summer. Norðurá river at Stekkur and Fossá river in Breiðafjörður measure at just 1% of their average flow rates for this time of year.

According to Einar, the North Atlantic fronts that usually unload their rain over Iceland have instead moved over the British Isles and Northern Europe, where weather has been unseasonably wet. Ireland has been experiencing record rainfall and downpours have caused floods in Norway and elsewhere.

Most Fishing Permits for Summer Sold Out

salmon fishing iceland

Fishing permits for the majority of Iceland’s salmon rivers have already been sold out, according to Jón Helgi Björnsson, chairperson of the Federation of Icelandic River Owners (Landsamband Veiðifélaga).

In a statement to RÚV, Jón Helgi said that despite a difficult economic situation domestically and abroad, it’s been a very good year for fishing permits, with many of the best rivers already being sold out.

However, Jón Helgi noted that despite healthy sales of fishing permits in the last years, the popular outdoor sport has seen a slight decline recently. “The best fishing is probably in East Iceland,” Jón Helgi stated, “but there were a lot of small salmon there last year. I think we can expect a small improvement from last year, which was a slow year.”

Jón Helgi also noted that increasingly, people practice fishing for the outdoor experience and the socializing, and less so for the fish. Because of changing trends in fishing, large portions of the annual catch are released back into Icelandic rivers: “This practice is also necessary because these stocks are under a lot of pressure from the environment. It is necessary to treat these stocks responsibly, and in recent years, we have seen some results from our effots.”

It is possible to buy a fishing permit (Veiðikortið) for access to lake fishing in some 36 lakes throughout Iceland. For rivers that run through private land, most notably including Iceland’s salmon rivers, separate permits are required. The first salmon of the year are expected to begin appearing around May 20, with salmon fishing season then starting at the beginning of June.

Road and Coastal Administration Work All Night to Prevent Route One from Flooding

Employees of the Road and Coastal Administration worked through the night to ensure that rising water levels in the Djúpadalsá river Skagafjörður, North Iceland would not flood Route One (the Ring Road). RÚV reports that breakwaters along a five-kilometre stretch of the road have been damaged. Skagafjörður has received a great deal of rain in recent days and all the rivers in the area are rising.

Road and Coastal workers used bulldozers to try and reinforce breakwaters that were at risk due to rising waters and contain the Djúpadalsá river. Route One also needed fortification, said Stefán Öxndal Reynisson, an inspector with the Road and Coastal Administration in Sauðárkrókur.

“These breakwaters are really damaged for probably close to five kilometres and the only channel leading into the Djúpadalsá river is now just overflowing with stuff after we’d gotten it in pretty good shape when we dredged it for three or four years.”

The extent of the damage has yet to be determined, but it’s estimated that it will cost tens of millions of krónur to rebuild the breakwaters that have been destroyed.

Screenshot, RÚV

Unusual for many rivers to flood at once

Stefán says that usually, only one river floods at once. “But it was just all the rivers yesterday evening and overnight. It didn’t help that the Héraðsvötn river was also full and there was a bit of a bottleneck into the Djúpadalsá river as well.”

There’s still a great deal of water in the rivers, all of which are churning dark and muddy. It’s expected that the Road and Coastal Administration will need to spend a great deal of time reshaping the channel of the Djúpadalsá river so that it will be able to accommodate the next flood. But for now, the sole focus is on keeping the river under control until conditions improve.

“It’s a little colder now, so I’m hopeful that the water level in the river will go down so that we can see what we’ve really got to do here,” said Stefán.

New Salmon Species Could Establish Itself in Iceland

humpback salmon iceland

Pink salmon could become a new commercial species in Iceland, RÚV reports. More and more of the fish is being caught in Iceland’s rivers, where it is known to have spawned. Experts believe it is likely the juveniles have survived.

Pink salmon are also known as humpback salmon due to the distinctive hump developed by males of the species during their spawning migration. The fish have a two-year breeding cycle. In the summer of 2017, 70 pink salmon were recorded in fishing logs in major fishing rivers. Pink salmon have been caught across the country, including in the Sog and Ölfusá rivers in Southwest Iceland; Miklavatn lake and Norðurá river in North Iceland; and Fögruhlíðará in East Iceland.

Fishermen expect to see more of the so-called “humpies” this year. “Based on what you hear, both on social media and other ways, I would say it was likely not fewer and maybe more than we saw in 2017,” says Guðni Guðbergsson, department head at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute.

Guðni says pink salmon has spawned in Iceland, but it is not yet confirmed that the spawning was successful. It is not known whether the fish could start breeding regularly and successfully in Iceland, but Guðni believes it to be likely, based on how the species has moved through Russia and Norway. “The spread seems to be heading further south along the Norwegian coast. So we could expect it, yes,” Guðni stated.

Classified as invasive in Europe

Pink salmon’s native habitat is in Pacific and Arctic coastal waters and rivers ranging from Northern California to Korea, Japan, and Siberia. After the fish were introduced to rivers of the White Sea and Barents Sea, they spread into Europe, where Guðni says pink salmon have been classified as an invasive species. There’s not much to be done, he says, other than monitor the fish’s progress in Iceland and its potential effects, “But certainly this will change the fauna we have here in our rivers among fish stocks.”

Jim Ratcliffe Acquires More Land in Iceland

Jim Ratcliffe

British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe has purchased holding company Grænaþing from investor Jóhannes Kristinsson, Fréttablaðið reports. With the acquisition, Ratcliffe has a 86.7% stake in the fishing association Strengur Ltd., which owns the fishing rights of Selá and Hofsá rivers in Vopnafjörður, Northeast Iceland.

Ratcliffe was named the UK’s richest person in May 2018, with a net worth of £21.05 billion. He now has owns over 30 properties in Vopnafjörður in whole or part, alongside other land in Iceland.

Chairman and CEO of Ineos chemicals group, Ratcliffe has been purchasing land in Northeast Iceland over the past several years with the stated goal of protecting salmon rivers in the area. When he purchased Grímsstaðir á fjöllum in 2016, Ratcliffe issued a statement saying the land was an important catchment area for salmon rivers in the region and the purchase was a step toward protecting wild Atlantic salmon stocks.

The purchase of Icelandic land by foreign nationals has been in the local media spotlight lately, with many locals concerned about foreign landowners’ intentions with the land. Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen has expressed her desire to tighten land purchase regulations and increase transparency in company ownership of land.