Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 66, Issue 1, pp 46–65 | Cite as

The 1996 eruption at Gjálp, Vatnajökull ice cap, Iceland: efficiency of heat transfer, ice deformation and subglacial water pressure

  • Magnús T. Gudmundsson
  • Freysteinn Sigmundsson
  • Helgi Björnsson
  • Thórdís Högnadóttir
Research Article


The 13-day-long Gjálp eruption within the Vatnajökull ice cap in October 1996 provided important data on ice–volcano interaction in a thick temperate glacier. The eruption produced 0.8 km3 of mainly volcanic glass with a basaltic icelandite composition (equivalent to 0.45 km3 of magma). Ice thickness above the 6-km-long volcanic fissure was initially 550–750 m. The eruption was mainly subglacial forming a 150–500 m high ridge; only 2–4% of the volcanic material was erupted subaerially. Monitoring of the formation of ice cauldrons above the vents provided data on ice melting, heat flux and indirectly on eruption rate. The heat flux was 5–6×105 W m-2 in the first 4 days. This high heat flux can only be explained by fragmentation of magma into volcanic glass. The pattern of ice melting during and after the eruption indicates that the efficiency of instantaneous heat exchange between magma and ice at the eruption site was 50–60%. If this is characteristic for magma fragmentation in subglacial eruptions, volcanic material and meltwater will in most cases take up more space than the ice melted in the eruption. Water accumulation would therefore cause buildup of basal water pressure and lead to rapid release of the meltwater. Continuous drainage of meltwater is therefore the most likely scenario in subglacial eruptions under temperate glaciers. Deformation and fracturing of ice played a significant role in the eruption and modified the subglacial water pressure. It is found that water pressure at a vent under a subsiding cauldron is substantially less than it would be during static loading by the overlying ice, since the load is partly compensated for by shear forces in the rapidly deforming ice. In addition to intensive crevassing due to subsidence at Gjálp, a long and straight crevasse formed over the southernmost part of the volcanic fissure on the first day of the eruption. It is suggested that the feeder dyke may have overshot the bedrock–ice interface, caused high deformation rates and fractured the ice up to the surface. The crevasse later modified the flow of meltwater, explaining surface flow of water past the highest part of the edifice. The dominance of magma fragmentation in the Gjálp eruption suggests that initial ice thickness greater than 600–700 m is required if effusive eruption of pillow lava is to be the main style of activity, at least in similar eruptions of high initial magma discharge.


Subglacial eruptions Ice cauldrons Heat flux Magma fragmentation Efficiency of heat exchange Ice deformation Water pressure 



We would like to thank Gudrún Larsen, Finnur Pálsson, John Smellie and Tómas Jóhannesson for their useful discussions. Constructive and helpful comments by reviewers Jim Head and Joe Walder improved the quality of this paper. The aerial field observations during and after the eruption were made with the assistance of the Iceland Civil Aviation Authority, especially chief pilot Snaebjörn Gudbjörnsson, and the helicopter service Þyrluþjónustan and pilot Jón K. Björnsson. Fieldwork on the glacier in 1997, 1998 and later was done with the aid of the Iceland Glaciological Society and the National Power Company of Iceland. Financial support for this project was obtained by a special grant from the Icelandic Government and the Icelandic Public Road Administration.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Magnús T. Gudmundsson
    • 1
  • Freysteinn Sigmundsson
    • 2
  • Helgi Björnsson
    • 1
  • Thórdís Högnadóttir
    • 1
  1. 1.Science InstituteUniversity of IcelandReykjavíkIceland
  2. 2.Nordic Volcanological InstituteUniversity of IcelandReykjavíkIceland

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