Ice Melting Atop Askja Volcano – Near-Future Eruption Unlikely

Lake Öskjuvatn

Scientists flew a Coast Guard plane over the Askja volcano yesterday, RÚV reports. Since last year, there have been frequent earthquakes and ground uplift – followed by a thaw last weekend. A volcanologist at the University of Iceland has stated that an eruption in the near future is unlikely, although he was unwilling to rule the possibility out completely.

Ice melting at an unusually quick rate

Yesterday, scientists aboard the TF-SIF surveillance aircraft flew over the Askja volcano in the central highlands of Iceland. The scientists hoped to observe the unusually quick melting of ice on Öskjuvatn lake; the water is normally frozen until April. A satellite image from Wednesday showed that snow had melted on the slopes east of Öskjuvatn. Ice had also melted from half of the Öskjuvatn lake, which is 1,100 hectares.

“I think it’s pretty clear that [the melting owes to] geothermal heat. The mountain is expanding and something is giving way. This is accompanied by geothermal heat on the surface,” Ármann Höskuldsson, professor of volcanology at the University of Iceland, told RÚV yesterday.

Scientists expect results from instruments on board TF-SIF, such as radar and temperature data, to be available today. The team also dropped a GPS device, a buoy, and a thermometer from the plane into Öskjuvatn lake. It’s been over a year since seismic activity began to increase at the Askja volcano. Since then, the land has risen by a total of 50 centimetres, and a magma chamber has formed underneath.

“It’s been flowing in for over a year since land began to rise. And then, of course, there is this data from the Cambridge people who assume that there are at least ten cubic kilometres of magma down there.”

When asked if there would be an eruption soon, Ármann replied thusly: “Not soon anyway. Although it could happen before long. But, of course, I can’t say; I think it’s pretty clear that we’ll see it on the seismometers at the MET Office some hours or days before it happens.”

As noted by RÚV, tourists are not visiting the Askja volcano at this time of year. Ármann observed that it would be necessary to monitor conditions closely when spring comes and tourists begin to visit.

Icelandic Experts to Assist in Turkey Earthquake Response

TF-SIF

The Icelandic Association for Search, Rescue, and Injury Prevention (ICE-SAR) will send a group of experts to Turkey to assist in response to the earthquakes that occurred in the country yesterday morning. Together with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, ICE-SAR began preparing a group of nine people for the trip, who will be transported using the Icelandic Coast Guard’s TF-SIF plane this afternoon.

The team consists of experts in operations management and coordination, currently much needed in Turkey. As of the time of writing, some 80 international teams have announced their assistance in the disaster area. The leader of the Icelandic team is Sólveig Þorvaldsdóttir, who is experienced in managing and coordinating similar international operations.

Two earthquakes over M7 hit Turkey and affected several other countries yesterday morning. As of the time of writing, the death toll has topped 5,100 people. Syria has also been heavily affected by the quake, and other affected countries include Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Georgia, and Armenia.

ICE-SAR wished the team good luck in the challenging conditions that await them.

Minister Unauthorised to Sell Surveillance Aircraft, MP Says

TF-SIF

There is no authorisation in the state budget for the sale of TF-SIF, the Coast Guard’s surveillance aircraft, the Chair of the Budget Committee told RÚV yesterday. The Minister of Justice has stated that his decision to discontinue the operations of TF-SIF was made in consultation with the Coast Guard.

No discussion taken place

In an interview with RÚV yesterday, Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir, MP for the Left-Greens and Chair of the Budget Committee, stated that Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson did not have the authorisation for the sale of TF-SIF, the Coast Guard’s only surveillance aircraft. According to Bjarkey, the budget authorises the purchase, or lease, of three rescue helicopters and the sale of an older helicopter, TF-LÍF. Bjarkey added that she was unhappy with the decision and the way that the Minister had gone about things, not least in light of the fact that no discussion had taken place within the Budget Committee.

“Authorisation is required, according to the sixth article of the law, in order to be allowed to sell these machines, and we may have reacted in a different way if we assumed that they were being sold – in discussions within the budget committee and discussions within Parliament – so I am not at all happy that some kind of authorisation is being requested afterwards, when the minister should do it beforehand,” Bjarkey remarked.

When asked if a minister could set a plan in motion without the required authorisation, as in this case, Bjarkey stated that such a thing was possible: “but of course, those plans may also collapse if the authorisation is not obtained; that’s the nature of these things.”

Bjarkey planned to convene the Budget Committee to discuss the matter yesterday and that she would request the presence of the Minister of Justice and the Coast Guard.

Consulted with the Coast Guard

Speaking to RÚV, the Minister of Justice maintained that the decision to discontinue the operations of TF-SIF was made in consultation with the Coast Guard. “We received a letter on December 18, in which various options to respond to the operational deficit were reviewed. It was believed that this would be the least damaging way forward, in terms of security considerations and other aspects of the Coast Guard’ operation, and would serve to fill the budgetary gap,” Jón Gunnarsson observed.

Preparations have begun to examine possible replacements for TF-SIF in the event of the sale. Jón stated that authorisation from Parliament to sell the plane has yet to be sought. “In other words, the intention was to announce that preparations would be started within the Coast Guard to sell the aircraft. We must then receive the authorisation from Parliament in order to carry out that sale. Meanwhile, we plan to have worked on future solutions in this regard, where we do not compromise the underlying security considerations,” Jón remarked. He added that it must be considered food for thought that the plane had never been recalled from missions in the southern seas over the recent years.

Important at the outer limits of Iceland’s jurisdiction

Kristín Jónsdóttir, geologist and Head of the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s Service and Research Department, told RÚV that the proposed sale was a big disappointment. “Because we’re talking about an aircraft that can help us in big moments. We are talking about critical events, such as the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. The aircraft penetrates plumes of smoke and is capable of observing phenomena that can’t be detected with the naked eye. There will be volcanic eruptions in the future where we need this aircraft.”

The State Auditor’s report from last year also noted that the aircraft was particularly important at the outer limits of Iceland’s jurisdiction, RÚV reports. In such areas, searching for, and rescuing people from danger was only possible by way of planes or ships. The report also made mention of the plane’s unique features, that it is equipped with advanced radars and a thermal camera. Lifeboats can also be launched from TF-SIFT for those in distress.

Tempers run hot in Parliament

Yesterday morning, temperatures ran high among members of Parliament, RÚV notes, who expressed their displeasure with the Minister of Justice’s decision. The MPs unceremoniously broached the issue during discussions about the Speaker’s meeting management and complained that the decision had not been discussed much earlier.

“It’s unacceptable that the government’s fiscal policy leads to basic infrastructure, essential safety equipment, being sold so that other operations can be maintained,” Helga Vala Helgadóttir, MP for the Social Democratic Alliance, observed.

Björn Leví Gunnarsson, MP for the Pirates, was likewise dissatisfied with the minister’s actions. “Was any MP present aware, when voting for the budget bill occurrred, that it would have these consequences? We don’t know what we’re agreeing to when we press the button because it’s not explicit.”

“It’s been observed how important the aircraft is, both for the safety of the citizens and for the Coast Guard’s security role: for search and rescue,” Sigmar Guðmundsson, MP for the Liberal Reform Party, commented. “It is quite unbelievable that the ruling parties did not discuss the matter with us.”

Budget Constraints Force Sale of Nation’s Only Surveillance Aircraft

TF-SIF

The operation of the Coast Guard’s surveillance aircraft, TF-SIF, will be discontinued to meet budgetary constraints. The decision marks “a major step back” in the nation’s response and surveillance capacity, the Director General of the Coast Guard noted in a recent press release.

Operations proven difficult over the recent months

The operation of the Coast Guard’s surveillance aircraft, TF-SIF, will be discontinued this year in order to streamline the Coast Guard’s operational costs, a press release from the Coast Guard notes. The Ministry of Justice sent a letter to the Coast Guard earlier this week asking the Coast Guard to prepare the sale process:

“The operation of the Coast Guard has proven difficult in recent months due to enormous oil price increases; increased operations, including a larger and more powerful patrol vessel; as well as decreased participation from Frontex (The European Border and Coast Guard Agency) than expected.”

In April of last year, Georg Kr. Lárusson, Director General of the Coast Guard, informed the Ministry of Justice that the conditions for Coast Guard’s operational budget “no longer held” owing to the fact that the current budget had not followed more extensive operations and because of increases in the price of oil and other budgetary items.

As noted in the press release, funding for the Coast Guard was increased by ISK 600 million ($4.3 million / €3.9 million) in this year’s budget. This increase was expected to prove insufficient, in light of last year’s operating deficit, unless measures were taken that would “compromise the organisation’s statutory roles and response capacity.”

A major step back in the nation’s response and surveillance capacity

Georg Kr. Lárusson observed that the decision to sell TF-SIF represented “a major step back” in the nation’s response and surveillance capacity.

“When it became clear that the organisation would not receive further financial contributions, a conversation began with the Ministry of Justice concerning possible ways to get the Coast Guard’s finances back on track. There was no good option in the situation, and we are very disappointed to be forced to stop the operation of the surveillance aircraft, given that it is a specially equipped patrol, rescue, and medical transport plane and an important part of the country’s public safety chain.:

“Since 1955, the Coast Guard has operated an aircraft for surveillance and rescue operations along the coast of Iceland. The current decision is, therefore, a major setback in the nation’s response and monitoring capacity. TF-SIF is one of the most important links in the agency’s response chain, and with this difficult decision, a large gap is cut in the Coast Guard’s operations. We also consider the presence of the plane in this country to be an urgent national security issue, especially in light of the changing global political landscape” Georg was quoted as saying.