Facing the elements in Iceland
Meteorological satellite data from EUMETSAT missions underpin weather and hazard warnings that help save lives and protect property in Iceland
Elín Björk Jónasdóttir reflects on how EUMETSAT’s meteorological satellite data supports responses to severe weather events and other natural hazards in Iceland.
“The Eyjafjallajökull eruptions caused a huge disruption over a six-week period, with its Europe-wide impacts taking many people by surprise,” says Jónasdóttir.
“However, for me, it was also a remarkable opportunity: by the time the eruption started I had been hired as a forecaster and was being trained while these astonishing events were happening in our backyard – we could see the plume from the office window!
“In the aftermath, specialists at IMO led efforts to ensure that authorities could be better prepared if an eruption happened again in future. It was an amazing lesson in multi-hazard preparedness.”
Putting ideas into practice
They did not have to wait long to put their contingency plans into action. Just a year later, on 21 May 2011, the Grímsvötn volcano at the heart of Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park erupted and sent vast plumes of volcanic ash as high as 20km into the atmosphere, grounded flights and put authorities on high alert.
“In terms of the sheer amount of magma expelled from the volcano, the Grímsvötn eruption was the largest recorded in Iceland for more than half a century,” recalls Jónasdóttir who, in the meantime, had been hired by IMO’s forecast department as a project manager.
“Moreover, the event coincided with a sustained period of very bad wet and windy weather; suddenly, we were faced with all these different kinds of hazardous events happening at the same time.
“People were still scarred by the experiences from the year before, but teams at IMO kept calm, collected and organised to deal with tasks such as monitoring volcanic ash, assessing impacts, making forecasts, and communicating with authorities and the public.
“At the same time, we brought geoscientists, seismologists, and meteorologists together in the same room, working very closely together. IMO’s multi-hazard approach proves to be extremely valuable in situations like this.
“Although the Grímsvötn event lasted only six days, rather than six weeks, it was clear how much we had learned from the situation one year earlier. It cemented my belief that collaborative approaches are the right way to go: bringing people together in one office to work together as equals and tackle the challenges at hand.”
In early December 2015 Jónasdóttir was enjoying a Saturday morning coffee with a friend when collaborative hazard-monitoring approaches were again put to task.
“Naturally, we were discussing the weather, which was forecast to be bad,” she says. “However, when I looked at the forecast maps, we spotted large eddies and circular currents of air that can play a substantial role in storm intensity.
“It was clear to me that a huge storm was headed in Iceland’s direction, and that it would have severe societal impact.
“So together with colleagues at IMO, we devised a plan inspired by experiences during the volcanic eruptions: we said let’s call in civil protection, let’s call in stakeholders such as police, air traffic control and road authorities, and discuss what we are seeing in the forecasts.”
What they were seeing was the beginning of one of the worst snowstorms to hit Iceland in more than a decade.
“The event cemented the implementation of a process that had started some years earlier, that we needed to focus on building a better warning system to improve preparedness,” says Jónasdóttir.
“IMO now holds regular meetings with natural hazard professionals, civil protection, the police, and other specialists involved in keeping the public safe during extreme weather and environmental events.
“During the meetings, we go around the room and participants summarise what is happening in their corner, whether it’s forecasts, seismology, landslides, avalanches, or hydrology.
“Moreover, we also emphasise the importance of highlighting upcoming events, such as festivals or ultra-marathons that may need particular attention. The diverse range of perspectives fosters proactive approaches to ensuring public safety.”
The initiative has helped drive the development of Iceland’s first colour-coded weather warning system, which classifies severe weather and storms according to their strength using four colours – green, yellow, orange, and red.
“In 2015 we didn’t have a common alerting protocol system or colour-coded warnings for severe weather and rather relied on warnings through general press releases and communication with the media,” says Jónasdóttir.
“When the warning system was launched in 2017, we had to strike a balance. Iceland has a lot of bad weather and a lot of natural hazards, especially in the wintertime. Therefore, it is important to limit the highest-level warnings to truly exceptional events.
“On the other hand, a yellow warning in Iceland could turn out to mean worse conditions than visitors to the island expect compared to similar warnings in their home country. It is critical we also factor this into our contingency planning.”
Iceland’s first red weather warning was issued some two-and-a-half years after the system was initiated, ahead of a ‘weather bomb’ that slammed into the north and east of the country on 10 December 2019.
“The storm brought hurricane-force winds and dangerous blizzard conditions that caused extensive damage to property and infrastructure across the island,” says Jónasdóttir.
“We could see from the high-resolution forecast data conditions were much worse than during the orange storm warnings we had issued to date.
“Colour-coded warnings give that clear message that it is dangerous to be outside and that people should take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and their families.
“They also enable authorities to be better prepared: to close roads where necessary, advise people to avoid travel, and to respond quickly to any emergencies.
“In predicting hazardous events and delivering warnings, meteorological satellite data are critical because they cover spatial dimensions that you simply don’t get anywhere else.
“One of the major revolutions in forecasting is numerical weather prediction models, which integrate remote sensing data from satellites and other observations to infer how the weather will develop in the coming hours and days.
“On the other hand, because of the complexities involved, these models can sometimes get it wrong. Therefore, it’s really important during bad weather to see the systems come through, pinpoint the location of hazardous events, and update the forecasts accordingly.”
Jónasdóttir says storm and hazard monitoring will be further improved by next-generation missions such as the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) and EUMETSAT Polar System – Second Generation (EPS-SG) programmes.
“Satellite data have a very varied use and are especially important for countries that are geographically isolated such as Iceland, particularly over the open ocean, we have less in situ data to draw on than many other countries,” she says.
“Geostationary satellite missions like EUMETSAT’s Meteosat programme provide situational awareness and the bigger picture of how things are working.
“The improved spatial resolution provided by MTG satellites will further improve our ability to profile rapidly developing weather systems in lower latitudes that may contribute to severe weather in Iceland.
“Polar-orbiting satellites such as the Metop series of satellites – part of the EUMETSAT Polar System –, on the other hand, pass directly overhead, and provide fine-grained data directly from above.
“Better resolution will have an impact, both for monitoring and forecasting. We rely heavily on polar-orbiting satellites so data provided by EPS-SG satellite instruments will be particularly valuable for numerical weather predictions as well as improving monitoring capabilities such as the effects of volcanic eruptions and the extent of sea ice.
“For example, Metop Second Generation spacecraft will carry the remarkable Copernicus Sentinel-5 instrument, which will provide detailed observations of ozone – data that will be used to track the spread of volcanic gases, to inform air quality forecasts, and warn transport planners of potential hazards.
“What I find so personally rewarding about working at the IMO are the high stakes involved: when we issue a red warning or spot a possible volcanic eruption, we can see that all the preparation, training and experience pays off.
“Staff at IMO can handle almost anything that comes our way, and satellite data play a huge part in these capabilities. If there is a breakdown in communication links, or we don’t receive satellite images this is something that is felt right away.
“My grandfather was a fisherman and when I was a child, we travelled a lot. As an Icelander you’re always thinking about the weather, you’re always very dependent on the weather.
“People associate Iceland with the cold, but for most of our warnings the common denominator is actually winds, including storms, blizzard conditions, and avalanches.
“The data, products and services provided by EUMETSAT in the infrared, near infrared and visible spectrums are critical to our day-to-day operations.
“And continuing the regular and reliable flow of these vital data is another reason why EUMETSAT’s next-generation programmes are so important.”
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