13 April 2010

Volcano Vocab #2: Jökulhlaup

Posted by Jessica Ball

Today’s obscure volcanologically-related word is jökulhlaup (“yer-kul-hloyp”, “YO-kel-yawp” and “yo-kul-h-loip” in varying pronunciations), which is an Icelandic word for glacial outburst floods, both of water and lahars, formed when a subglacial eruption occurs. The water for these floods is formed when heat from those eruptions melts glacial ice, forming lakes that eventually become unstable enough to break through channels in the base of the glacier and flow out from underneath it. (Apparently the word can also refer to flooding caused by geothermal heat rather than a subglacial eruption, but since it’s hard to see what’s going on under a glacier in the first place, I wouldn’t be too picky about the generation mechanism; suffice to say that some sort of volcanic activity is involved.) To give you an idea of what an unstable subglacial lake would look like, here’s a diagram from an excellent overview paper:

Figure 3 from Björnsson (2002), showing a stable sub-glacial lake (a) and (b) an unstable lake likely to form jökulhlaups.

How big are these floods? Here’s a quote from the same paper, talking about jokulhlaups from formed by the Grímsvötn volcano under the Vatnajökull glacier:

Jökulhlaups from Grímsvötn have occurred at 1– to 10–year intervals, with peak discharges of 600 to 4–5×104 m3s−1 at the glacier margin, a duration of 2 days to 4 weeks and a total volume of 0.5–4.0 km3.

Obviously, this is not a good thing to be in the way of. (By way of comparison, the mean discharge at Niagara Falls is about 1770 m3s−1 , or about a quarter one-thirtieth of the peak discharge during one of those floods.) I don’t have any personal or public domain photos of a jökulhlaup, but the Global Volcanism program has some excellent photos from a 1998 event during an eruption of Grímsvötn.

This topic is quite relevant at the moment because of the recent volcanic activity in Iceland. While the fissure that’s erupting at Eyjafjallajökull isn’t in danger of melting much ice, there are several other volcanoes that are, such as Katla volcano under the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Since roughly 10% of Iceland is covered in glacial ice, and the country has more than 30 volcanoes that have been active in the last 10,000 years, this is a major concern (see Ole Nielsen’s post on jökulhlaups here).

If you’re interested in more Icelandic geologic vocab, the USGS has an English-Icelandic glossary here. And here is the full citation for the Björnsson paper:

Björnsson, H., (2002), Subglacial lakes and jökulhlaups in Iceland. Global and Planetary Change, v. 35, p. 255–271. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0921-8181(02)00130-3

UPDATE: Whoops! Totally forgot about this page over at Andrew Alden’s About.com Geology. Lots more detail there!