Research News

UB geologist helps predict where Fagradalsfjall’s lava may go

A photograph from April 17, 2021 captures active vents at Iceland's Fagradalsfjall volcano.

A photograph from April 17, 2021 captures active vents at Fagradalsfjall. Credit: Gro B. M. Pedersen

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published April 27, 2021

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headshot of Mattia de’ Michieli Vitturi.
“Thousands of people are visiting the eruption site, making the capability of anticipating the lava propagation an important element to evaluate the hazard in the area. ”
Mattia de’ Michieli Vitturi, assistant professor
Department of Geology

The eruption of Fagradalsfjall on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, with lava emerging from multiple fissures, has captivated people around the world since March.

As molten rock continues to pour out, lighting up the landscape with its fiery glow, a UB researcher is helping officials in Iceland predict where the lava may go next.

Mattia de’ Michieli Vitturi, assistant professor of volcanology in the Department of Geology, College of Arts and Sciences, is a mathematician who uses computational fluid dynamics to study natural phenomena ranging from tsunamis to volcanic events.

He is working with partners in the Icelandic Meteorological Office, the University of Iceland and the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Italy to use a model he developed to map potential future patterns of lava flow. The model considers factors such as the region’s topography, the shape and location of fissures and vents, and the volume of lava that’s surfacing.

“I’m collaborating with them as the eruption is changing almost daily,” de’ Michieli Vitturi says. “The lava is exiting from multiple vents, so the last version of the model that I sent was a couple of hours ago, with a modification because they had some requests.”

This cooperative research grew from a longstanding partnership between de’ Michieli Vitturi and Sara Barsotti, the volcanic hazards coordinator for the Icelandic Meteorological Office. The two had previously worked together on other projects in Europe, including at the INGV section in Pisa, Italy. It was also at INGV that de’ Michieli Vitturi created the lava flow model with his colleague Simone Tarquini, who is also collaborating on the effort at Fagradalsfjall.

Maps comparing actual (left) and previously predicted (right) lava thickness at Fagradalsfjall as of April 18, 2021. Left map: Estimated lava thickness on April 18, produced using data from aerial surveys acquired by the University of Iceland, National Land Survey of Iceland, and Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Right map: Lava thickness predictions previously generated for April 18 using data from April 12, inputted in a lava flow model developed by Mattia de’ Michieli Vitturi and run by Gro B. M. Pedersen. Scientists choose a setting that tends to overestimate lava flow, as the model is used for hazard evaluation, Pedersen says. Courtesy of Gro B. M. Pedersen.

Courtesy of Gro B. M. Pedersen

De’ Michieli Vitturi’s work in Iceland presented his UB students with a great opportunity this semester. In early April, Barsotti gave a virtual guest lecture in a course de’ Michieli Vitturi is teaching on geologic hazards. The talk focused on Iceland, describing the country’s geology and how the Icelandic Meteorological Office monitors events, including the ongoing activity at Fagradalsfjall. Barsotti noted that the eruption — which was preceded by tens of thousands of earthquakes — could continue for weeks or months.

Though the immediate area surrounding the fissures that have opened up at Fagradalsfjall is largely uninhabited, de’ Michieli Vitturi says predicting how lava may flow remains important. The model could be useful in understanding how human-made barriers could be used to influence how the molten rock spreads.

“Even if the area where the eruption occurred is sparsely populated, with no major towns or villages in imminent danger, the main road connecting the capital Reykjavík and the international airport at Keflavík is only a few kilometers away. In addition, thousands of people are visiting the eruption site, making the capability of anticipating the lava propagation an important element to evaluate the hazard in the area,” de’ Michieli Vitturi says.

In addition to de’ Michieli Vitturi, Barsotti and Tarquini, colleagues involved in the lava flow modeling efforts have included Melissa Anne Pfeffer and Bergrún Arna Óladóttir at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, and Gro Birkefeldt Møller Pedersen at the University of Iceland.

The new lava field in Fagradalsfjall, based on RGB images taken on April 18, 2021.

The new lava field in Fagradalsfjall, based on RGB images taken on April 18, 2021, acquired by the following institutions: University of Iceland; National Land Survey of Iceland; and the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Courtesy of Gro B. M. Pedersen