Case 7: Iceland - Avalanches and Landslides
The following is a preliminary assessment of how communities in Iceland will be affected by climate change - the main hazards in focus, in this case, are avalanches and landslides.
The assessment will be developed further as the fieldwork progress.
Climate conditions and background
Despite its name, Iceland is not that icy, especially when compared to other places on the same latitude. But 11% of the landmass is covered by glaciers, which are a remnant of the last ice ages, however, they are residing following the global trend of a changing climate (Aðalgeirsdóttir et al. 2020).
Located at the Mid Atlantic Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland’s weather and climate are characterized by mild winters and cool summers, with average temperatures ranging between 0-10°C (Ólafsson et al., 2007). The relatively mild climate can be linked to the gulf stream whose currents warm air masses in the Northern Hemisphere. While the amplitude of temperatures is moderate, the weather fluctuations can be extreme, ranging between -38.0°C to 30.5°C due to the mountainous landscape. Steep slops warm descending air while deep gorges and highlands damn and amplify cold air (Einarsson, 1984).
Iceland has around 350,000 inhabitants, of which two-thirds live in the capital region. Of the 97 settlements around the country, only five have more than 5,000 inhabitants, while 71 counts less than 1,000 (Statistics Iceland, 2021). With only three inhabitants per km2, Iceland is the country with the lowest population density in Europe.
Precipitation and thawing permafrost
The identified hazards for the case studies in Iceland - (slush) avalanches and landslides - are interlinked in most reports and research and have the same stressors: precipitation, thawing permafrost and to a certain extent retreating glaciers. The latter part, however, will not be discussed in this case since no settlement is close to a glacier.
Despite its sparsely distributed population and the few inhabitants, the anthropogenic impact on the Icelandic environment is high. Publications on the Icelandic soil highlight the uniqueness of the country and the environment of Iceland has changed since settlement, with desertification as one of the main outcomes (Arnalds, 2015). Vegetation changes, such as soil erosion and desertification, and the loss of birch woodlands have huge impacts on the (local) climate. The surface geomorphology and soil properties are heavily influenced by freeze-thaw cycles (ibid.). In addition to soil erosion, Iceland experiences water erosion, caused by precipitation and intensified snow-melt (ibid.). This is essential since the Icelandic bedrock “[…] is easily erodible by phenomena like frost shattering, creating a constant supply of new debris on the mountain slopes, which recent glaciations have steepened, forming the perfect conditions for the occurrence of rapid mass movements” (Morino 2018:36). This is intensified through the lack of forests, which would provide natural avalanche protection (Jóhannesson & Arnalds, 2001).
Iceland is focusing on restoration efforts, aiming for stabilizing the soil surface and afforestation projects. Such restoration efforts are important for carbon sequestration and the green-house budgeting in Iceland (Arnalds, 2015; Umhverfisráðuneytið, 2010).
Hazard and exposure
Until recently social and economic analysis of climate change-related hazards have not received much attention in Iceland. Most climate change-related publications were on modeling, predictions, or mitigation (Ingólfsdóttir, 2016; Veðurstofa, 2018). The latest report from the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) addresses possible impacts on society, economy, and community (Vedurstofa, 2018). It is very detailed when it comes to the description of hazards and their linkage to climate change. In its concluding chapter, the IMO states that “climate change may increase the likelihood of some natural disasters, especially floods, (slush) avalanches, forest fires and volcanic eruptions” (ibid.:232).
History of avalanches and landslides
Iceland has a long history of avalanches and landslides, claiming almost 700 lives (193 in the 21st century), causing economic damage (Jóhanesson & Arnalds, 2001), and leaving traumatized communities (Þórðardóttir, 2016). Nonetheless, it took until 1995 and two disastrous events for avalanche research and preventive measures to gain more public and political support (cf. Jóhannesson et al., 2008). Since then, hazard zoning takes place as well as updated reporting on hazards in combination with constantly improved warning systems (Morino, 2018). The main institution in charge is the IMO. Adaptation strategies can be divided into “structural physical defenses” and “non-structural measurements” (ibid.). Examples for the first-mentioned are defense walls and barriers and land-use planning for the latter.
Main events in recent history
Avalanches in Flateyri (1995 and 2019) and Súðavík (1995)
The two communities in the Westfjords of Iceland were hit by avalanches in January 1995 and 34 people lost their lives. In the following, a damn was built in Flateyri (costs of 5.5 million USD) and the relocation of the community of Súðavík (10.1 million USD) (Jóhannesson & Arnalds, 2001). Despite the damn being built in Flateyri (Figure 1), this town was hit by another avalanche in January 2019. This time no inhabitant died, but the local fishing industry was hit hard since the barriers deflected the avalanche and channeled it to the local harbor, where most of the vessels were anchored that night.
2020 Largest mudslide in an urban area
In the week before Christmas 2020, Seyðisfjörður, a harbor town in the East of Iceland, was hit by several mudslides and a part of the town was evacuated subsequently. While fortunately no injuries were reported, one of the landslides was accounted for as the highest damaging one to have hit an urban area in Iceland (Veðurstofa, 2021).
The days leading up to the event were marked by an unprecedented amount of precipitation for five days. The volume of the landslide was unexpected, moving material from sediment depths that have not collapsed for thousands of years (ibid.). An updated hazard assessment is currently being prepared to understand the risk the community is exposed to.
Even though risk awareness has increased and research has been institutionalized, surprisingly little research has been conducted so far. Climate change-related hazards are a rather young phenomenon, especially with regards to social impacts and local adaptation. The intensified research on avalanches and rapid mass movements has started after disastrous events in 1995 when 35 people died in snow avalanches (Morino, 2018). The affected communities from 1995 are part of the research area of this project. As a direct response to these events, laws, and regulations were implemented. Since 1997, the IMO conducts risk assessments on avalanches and landslides.
Figure 1 Recorded avalanches in the town of Flateyri. Every red line indicates an avalanche. Source: Screenshot from the IMO: http://ofanflodakortasja.vedur.is/ofanflod/
Climate change impacts on avalanches and landslides
Research on climate change is rather young in Iceland. The latest report of the IMO summarizes the current events as follows (Veðurstofa, 2018):
Research shows that from the last glacial period the range of long-term changes in Iceland has been around 4°C which is a much greater temperature change than on Earth at the same time.
Since continuous measurements began in the middle of the 19th century, it has warmed significantly in the country with 0.8°C per century.
In recent decades, warming has intensified. Between 1980–2015 it was an increase of 0.47°C per decade, mostly in the western and northwestern parts of the country. Precipitation in the country has increased since then from 1500 mm/year to 1600–1700 mm/year in recent years. Precipitation can be expected to increase by at least 1.5% for each degree of warming. In some models, the increase is much greater and up to 4.5% for each degree of warming.
Until the middle of the century, global warming is likely to be in the range of 1.3–2.3°C. In the scenarios where emissions are close to the Paris Agreement, warming is more moderate (range of 1.3 to 1.6°C). Depending on the scenario, by the end of the century, the warming is expected to be around 4.1°C [1.9 to 6.5]° (scenario with the most emissions of greenhouse gases) or between 1.5 to 2.4°C (scenarios with reduced emissions).
Warming is expected to affect the north of the country, especially in areas where there will be less sea ice in the second half of the century.
Regardless of the stressor or cause, the vulnerability will certainly increase for both, the environment and society. For some sectors, positive aspects of climate change are expected, especially agriculture (increased productivity, e.g. barley, or even new crops) (Ingólfsdóttir, 2016). However, this is of little importance in this study as it is the fishing communities that are included in this case.
As indicated above, the identified hazards can be subcategorized as “rapid mass movements”, which are considered as a direct threat to many settlements in Iceland (Morino, 2018). Three out of four factors that trigger such rapid mass movement can be related to climate change to a certain extent: heavy/changing precipitation, snowmelt, and thawing permafrost (ibid.). It is, however, difficult to determine exactly to what extent the hazards are directly affected by climate change. Iceland has been exposed to harsh and changing climates ever since settlement in 874, which is not surprising given its location and the effects of the surrounding ocean and currents. Morino states that “[…] there is a strong theoretical basis for increased landslide activity as a result of climate change [in Iceland]” (ibid.:51).
In 2011 the Icelandic Civil Protection Department (Almannavarndeildar Ríkislögreglustjóra) stated that there is a need to increase preparedness for climate change-related effects, in particular with regards to aquaculture, marine status, ecosystems, and national health monitoring. However, a comprehensive approach to adaptation is still lacking (Veðurstofa, 2018), and according to a recent international review (Canosa et al., 2020), there is no reported adaptation or initiative. Some Icelandic researchers also discuss the lack of local (and national) adaptation plans (Aguiar et al., 2018; Ingólfsdóttir, 2016; Johannsdóttir, 2017).
A recently published report by the IMO highlights the importance of future research and the review of guidelines and adaptation strategies, which are hitherto subject to individual initiatives, a few municipalities, companies, and institutions such as the Icelandic Road Administration (Vegagerðin) and the Icelandic energy company Landsvirkjun (Veðurstofa, 2018). Since 2015, and in response to the summit in Paris, Iceland proposed a strategy for action, which is connected to two projects: 1) A scientific report on the consequences of climate change, including a scientific assessment of the consequences of climate change on nature, economy and society in Iceland and 2) an adaptation plan to climate change: a project managed by the IMO on how the Icelandic society can respond to effects of climate change (ibid.).
Iceland has a two-tiered system of governance. In the latest report on the impacts of climate change from the IMO, this system is addressed since it has benefits but also some shortcomings. Regarding natural hazards, the municipalities have little impact, and it is stated that “The municipalities are not competent for monitoring natural hazards and have de facto a marginal role in assessing the risks but are acknowledged as key authorities in the mitigation and prevention effort in their quality of local governments responsible, within the limits of their jurisdiction, for matters such as civil protection, health, spatial planning, and education” (Nordress, 2016:29).
Responsibilities are divided as follows: regularity authorities are five different ministries and their institutions, the environmental monitoring is part of the IMO, while the hazard and risk assessment is a joint task of the IMO, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History (IINN), Iceland Catastrophe Insurance (ICI), the Institute of Earth Sciences of the University of Iceland (IES-UI), and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management of the National Commissioner of Police (Nordress, 2016). The latter is also in charge of emergency management. Costs for defense structures are shared between municipalities and the state (through the Avalanche Mitigation Fund).
The possible impacts are the loss of real estate in hazard zones, before or after a hazardous event, high costs for maintenance and infrastructure, and temporary inaccessibility. All these aspects can be classified as locational factors and places that are already in an unfavorable location for companies might lose competitiveness. Most settlements are heavily dependent on road traffic and good infrastructure. In some communities, the mainstay industry (fisheries) is even located in hazard zones. Some communities might not be directly affected, but their accessibility by road, air, or water will be limited prior, during, and after hazardous events.
Again, there is hardly any adaptation plan and the latest report of the IMO clearly states that an analysis of impacts on infrastructure, in particular the transmission networks, is lacking (Veðurstofa, 2018). Impacts on the transmission net are expected. The IMO also states that social impacts need to be evaluated and possible responses researched, which includes an assessment of costs of adjustment and mitigation measures (ibid.). Considerable damage to transportation systems and buildings has occurred in similar events previously (Jóhanesson & Arnalds, 2001; Morino, 2018). One major problem is the zoning of impact areas. It can be doubted that the zones get less and relocation of buildings proves to be a challenge given the geography of many fjord communities. Hazard zoning was strengthened in the 1990s, estimating different forms of acceptable risks (Jóhannesson & Arnalds, 2001). Acceptable risks are defined, among other factors, by potential fatal accidents per year per 10.000 persons, resulting in a classification A, B or C (ibid.) (Figure 2).
Figure 2 Example of zoning in Iceland. The three zones in the town of Patreksfjörður. Source: https://vedur.is/gogn/snjoflod/haettumat/pa/pa_rad.pdf
There are several regions and communities around Iceland that are affected by the hazards of our study (Figure 3). It is coastal communities from the Northwestern corner of Iceland down to the Southeast corner are “[…] subject to recurrent snow-avalanche and debris flow activity, whose catastrophic effects are increasing with time” (Morino 2018:36). According to the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, some 16 settlements of Iceland could be affected by such events (Almannavarnir, 2021).
Figure 3 Villages threatened by avalanches or landslides. Source: Jóhanesson & Arnalds, 2001:82
None of the places has more than 3,000 inhabitants and most Icelanders live in regions that will not be affected by avalanches or landslides. The case study locations in the Westfjords were the only ones classified as “enormous risk areas” that require immediate action, while those in the Eastfjords were between “high risk” (solutions examined) and “possible risks” (Jóhannesdóttir, 2011).
Evacuation plans exist for the research areas, administered by the IMO and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management. In addition, avalanche protection is set up in the form of walls, fences, and other barriers.
Within the four phases of the disaster cycle the following strategies exist:
Mitigation/prevention: Building avalanche protection
Preparedness: Warning systems and evacuation plans
Response: Evacuation, temporary closures of roads, decentral energy supply
Recovery: National insurance system
All municipalities of Iceland are required to provide a master plan. We analyzed the master plans for all municipalities in our case study locations on keywords related to hazards, adaptation, and climate change. The results are summarized in the table below. All master plans were set up between 2008 and 2010, some were updated afterward. New master plans can be expected by the end of 2021.
Aguiar, F. C., Bentz, J., Silva, J. M., Fonseca, A. L., Swart, R., Santos, F. D., & Penha-Lopes, G. (2018). Adaptation to climate change at local level in Europe: An overview. Environmental Science & Policy, 86, 38-63.
Almannavarnir (2021). Snjóflóð. Retrieved from: https://www.almannavarnir.is/natturuva/snjoflod/
Arnalds, O. (2015). Collapse, erosion, condition, and restoration. In The soils of Iceland (pp. 153-180). Springer, Dordrecht.
Aðalgeirsdóttir, G., Magnússon, E., Pálsson, F., Thorsteinsson, T., Belart, J., Jóhannesson, T., Hannesdóttir, H., Sigurðsson, O., Gunnarsson, A., Einarsson, B., Berthier, E., Schmidt, L., Haraldsson, H., and Björnsson, H. (2020). ‘Glacier changes in Iceland from ∼1890 to 2019’. Frontiers of Earth Science. 8:574754. 10.3389/feart.2020.523646
Canosa, I. V., Ford, J. D., Mcdowell, G., Jones, J., & Pearce, T. (2020). Progress in climate change adaptation in the Arctic. Environmental Research Letters, 15(9), 093009.
Einarsson, M. (1984). Climate of Iceland - World Survey, Vol. 15 in H. Van Loon (Ed.): Climate of the Oceans, 673-697.
Ingólfsdóttir, A. H. (2016). Climate change and security in the Arctic: a feminist analysis of values and norms shaping climate policy in Iceland. PhD Dissertation. University of Lapland|.
Jóhannesdóttir, G. (2011). Áhættuskoðun almannavarna – Helstu niðurstöður. Retrieved from: https://www.almannavarnir.is/utgefid-efnis/ahaettuskodun-almannavarna-2011/
Johannsdottir, L. (2017). Climate Change and Iceland’s Risk-Sharing System for Natural Disasters. The Geneva Papers on Risk and Insurance-Issues and Practice, 42(2), 275-295.
Jóhannesson, T., & Arnalds, Þ. (2001). Accidents and economic damage due to snow avalanches and landslides in Iceland. Jökull, 50, 81-94.
Jóhannesson, T., Eiríksson, G., Hestnes, E., Gunnarsson, J. (2008). International Symposium on Mitigative Measures against Snow Avalanches. Egilsstaðir, Iceland, March 11–14, 2008
Morino, C. (2018). The Hidden Hazard of Melting Ground Ice in Northern Iceland (Doctoral dissertation, The Open University).
Nordress, 2016. Resilience to natural hazards: An overview of institutional arrangements and practices in the Nordic countries. NORDRESS WP6.1 report
Ólafsson, H., Furger, M., Brümmer, B. (2007). The weather and climate of Iceland. Meteorologische Zeitschrift, 16(1), 005-008.
Statistics Iceland (2021). Classification of localities by size 1991-2019. Retrieved from: https://px.hagstofa.is/pxen/pxweb/en/Ibuar/Ibuar__mannfjoldi__2_byggdir__Byggdakjarnareldra/MAN03500.px
Umhverfisráðuneytið (2010). Aðgerðaáætlun í loftslagsmálum. Retrieved from: https://www.stjornarradid.is/media/umhverfisraduneyti-media/media/pdf_skrar/adgerdaaaetlun-i-loftslagsmalum.pdf
Veðurstofa (2018). Loftslagsbreytingar og Áhrif Þeirra Á Íslandi. Skýrsla vísindanefndar um loftslagsbreytingar.
Veðurstofa (2021). The landslide in Seyðisfjörður is the largest landslide to have damaged an urban area in Iceland. Available at: https://en.vedur.is/about-imo/news/the-landslide-in-seydisfjordur-is-the-largest-landslide-to-have-damaged-an-urban-area-in-iceland
Þórðardóttir, E. B. (2016). Long-term health consequences of avalanches in Iceland in 1995: A 16 year follow-up (Doctoral dissertation).