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ENVIRONMENT-ICELAND: Living With Volcanic Eruptions

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Apr 19 2010 (IPS) - Incredible as it may seem, daily life for the vast majority of Icelanders is completely unaffected by the volcanic eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, that has left thousands of air passengers around the world stranded due to flight cancellations.

Plumes of ash streaming away from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland. Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

Plumes of ash streaming away from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland. Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

The westerly and northerly winds that have prevailed since the eruption began have sent the massive ash column away from Iceland, out to sea and over to Europe.

But for the Icelandic community of about 700 or so people living in the area south or east of the glacier, it is a different story.

Farmers make up the greatest proportion of those living in the affected area. Finnur Tryggvason from Raudafell is one of them. On his farm, 10-15 km south of the eruption site, Tryggvason keeps horses and a few sheep.

“It has been black as night here all day long because of the ash cloud,” Tryggvason told IPS on Saturday night. But the following day the ash cloud was lower – three km rather than eight km high – and therefore did not travel far. “There has been a lot of thunder too, but lightning was not visible because of cloud cover,” he added.

Because it is an active volcanic country, Iceland is no stranger to volcanic eruptions. The last eruption, just east of the current one, ended only 36 hours before the current one started. That event, however, was harmless and quickly became known as the ‘tourist eruption’.

Geologists keep a close watch on the situation and a Civil Protection Department (CPD) controls operations if an eruption happens. In the last two eruptions, a large number of earthquakes in the area preceded the start of volcanic activity.

This time, about 800 people were woken at around 4 a.m. and evacuated before the eruption started to a Red Cross Mass Care Centre that had been set up in the nearest town, because the CPD feared an impending eruption and felt there could be flooding as well.

Farmers were later allowed to go home to milk and care for their animals, but had to return to the centre. The evacuation order was lifted early evening for all except the residents of 20 farms, who were not allowed to sleep at home until Saturday night.

Tryggvason was one of the people who were evacuated initially. “But there really was no need for it, as my farm is high up,” he says.

Many of the people who were evacuated this time were also evacuated for the previous eruption, again because of the risk of flooding.

“Life has been horrific for the residents concerned. Farmers excepted, many have left their homes completely and gone to stay with friends or relatives outside the affected area,” says Urdar Gunnarsdottir from the CPD media centre.

Those in the affected areas have received dust masks and protective goggles from rescue teams to wear outside. Many have tried to seal windows and doors in their houses and barns, in the hope of keeping out the fine ash particles. But this does not always work.

“Ash has crept into the house, and especially into the outbuildings which were not sealed as tightly,” says Tryggvason.

Gudrun Larsen is a geologist with the Institute of Earth Sciences who has been measuring the ash layer in the affected area. “In the lowland, the thickness could reach up to five cm, although in places where ash had settled after being blown from elsewhere, it was sometimes thicker,” she told IPS.

What are the long-term effects of the ash? “They are impossible to predict. It depends on how long the eruption lasts, how strong the winds are, and how thick the ash layer is. If the ash layer is thin, it could be washed away by rain, but the situation is worse if the ash layer is thick as it has a high fluorine content that is not good for animals,” says Gunnarsdottir.

Fluorine can bind with calcium to produce calcium fluoride, an insoluble compound that can lead to calcium deficiency and cause weak bones and teeth. Farmers are currently being encouraged to bring their animals under shelter, but when this becomes impossible – some horses have never been inside a stable before – to ensure that they have access to fresh water and hay.

Some people are optimistic, though. Thorarinn Olafsson grows barley on his farm, Drangshlid. “I’m just ploughing the ash back into the soil. It’s not too deep where I am, only one to two cm, which is less than some places,” he says. He intends to sow 100 hectares of barley compared to the 160 hectares he sowed last year.

“We really need a lot of rain now to wash the fluorine and other toxic compounds away,” he says.

Is it sensible to plough volcanic ash back into the soil? “I haven’t studied the actual chemical breakdown of the ash, but fluorine is not toxic to vegetation so in my opinion a small amount of ash ploughed back should not pose any problem,” says Sigurgeir Olafsson from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority.

If the ash layer is thick, however, it can be very damaging to fields. The Farmers’ Association is concerned that hay might have to be brought into the area if the eruption continues for a long time.

The eruption has led to floods that in some cases have damaged roads, bridges and levees. At one point, this led to a temporary food shortage in the southern town of Vik and problems with milk collection from dairy farmers. And as the wind direction had changed and there was limited visibility, the school in Vik was closed on Monday.

Is there a possibility that the ash cloud will reach Reykjavik or other areas with a greater population density if the wind direction changes? “It is impossible to say. It depends on how strong the wind is, what the wind direction is, how much ash is present, and other factors,” says Gunnarsdottir.

In the affected area, meetings are being held to inform residents of the current situation and the effects of ash on livestock and vegetation. Others keep up to date by checking out the web cameras of the eruption and media coverage.

Ironically, the international airport and most of the domestic airports in Iceland have been open as usual since the eruption began. It is Europe that is at the receiving end of the ash cloud, not Iceland.

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