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Future funding of geological research not so rock-solid

Future funding of geological research not so rock-solid

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason, photo: Eemu Ranta

The Nordic Volcanological Centre (NordVulk) has secured scholarships for many Nordic geologists to study or do research in Iceland. They have been able to study lava of various ages and, with luck, witness a volcanic eruption. But now NordVulk's funding is no longer rock-solid.

Rikke Pedersen, the current Centre Manager, says it all started in the 70s when five Nordic geologists – one from each Nordic country – were on a field trip to Iceland.

“The five geologists got the idea of setting up a joint Nordic institute here since it is possible to study active processes related to volcanos in Iceland,” she says.

Pedersen explains that the Nordic region has rich geologic diversity, from day-fresh lava flows to mountains that were formed billions of years ago.

Rikke Pedersen

Rikke Pedersen heads NordVulk. Photo: Hallgrímur Indriðason.

“Icelandic geologists can travel to Greenland to see how the ancient mountains have changed. Likewise, geologists from other Nordic countries, who have nothing but million- or billion-years-old rock to study, get to witness the active processes. When we cooperate we get to see the whole picture.”

NordVulk aims to gather different experts from various Nordic countries so that they can complement each other's research.

Freysteinn Sigmundsson, Professor of geophysics and former head of NordVulk, says all the researchers are on long-term projects that are not dependent on any active volcanic eruptions.

“But when you do get an eruption, we cooperate to try to understand what is happening. We also provide advice to authorities and the public in Iceland and in other Nordic countries. Right now we have an ongoing eruption in Geldingadalir, which gives students and researchers the opportunity to vary their research and to get experience from an active eruption. This is incredibly valuable.”

Happy geologists

We cannot talk about NordVulk without mentioning the eruption in Geldingadalir in Reykjanes of course. It started in March and has lasted for more than three months as we write. Rikke Pedersen says there was a lot of media attention during the first week of the eruption, but that things have quietened down since. 


Geldingadalir in Reykjanes on 24 March 2021, five days after the eruption started. Photo: Berserkur, Wikipedia.

But the geologists who were already in Iceland were, and remain, extremely happy. 

“They can do fieldwork by observing and participating in taking samples or measurements. Then they participate in research projects on how eruptions begin,” says Pedersen.

For the geologists, this eruption is also useful because it is very accessible.

“We had people near the 2015 Holuhraun eruption 50% of the time. It lasted for six months and was far into the mountains. But there were also many students involved there,” he says.

It is common that the media, and not least people who live close to the eruption site, want to know what is going to happen in the coming days or weeks. Right now, the issue is whether the lava flow will reach Suðurstrandarvegur, an important road in the southern part of Iceland.

Yet despite the number of volcano experts in Iceland, it is difficult to predict what will happen.

“There are so many things that can happen to eruptions like this. We can create a model for when the lava will cross Suðurstrandarvegur if there are no changes. But changes happen all the time. New fissures emerge, the lava flow increases and so on. This is nature and we cannot control it. But we can react."

Although NordVulk has been operational for almost 50 years, its future is now uncertain. To begin with, it was financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers. In 2004, NordVulk became part of the University of Iceland and half of its funding now comes from the Icelandic state. 

Freysteinn Sigmundsson

Freysteinn Sigmundsson, who was NordVulk’s leader at the time, says the reason was a desire to be integrated into the University of Iceland.

“Which meant less money from the Nordic Council of Ministers and more from the Icelandic state. Yet it gave us the best opportunity to teach young Nordic researchers with an interest in vulcanology.”

Sigmundsson believes it was a good solution and gives  two examples to explain why: 

“When Eyafjallajökull erupted in 2010, NordVulk had to advise authorities around the world, especially on the consequences for air traffic, but it also had to advise Nordic emergency services. NordVulk played an important part because the consequences were so severe. It is also very important that the Nordic countries can get advice from one institute when we have eruptions that have consequences beyond our own borders. 

“We now have the Geldingadalir eruption, which is smaller, but we provide important information to the other Nordic countries. All the NordVulk researchers work really well together, and those who come from other Nordic countries get the chance to get to know different types of geologists.” 

Changes to funding

This year, the funding was moved from the Nordic Council of Ministers to NordForsk, the joint Nordic research fund. Rikke Pedersen says this solution will cover the next three years. 

“After that, we must apply for funds in competition with others. That will be a major change which we are now preparing for. It means we must be able to sell what we do to whoever holds the purse strings.”

Pedersen says the funding has in fact been uncertain since 2012.

“At the time there was a plan to nationalise five Nordic institutes, including NordVulk. That would have meant leaving the joint Nordic system and the individual countries taking over responsibility for the institutes.

“The main debate in later years has been why Iceland should finance a joint Nordic institute. That would only make it an Icelandic institute! But we got support from the Minister of Education, Science and Culture Lilja Alfredsdottir, so we can now apply for NordForsk funds together with the other institutes. 

“But the joint funding ends in 2024. After that, we can apply for funds every five years, and then we will be in a new situation. Yet we plan to continue our cooperation with other Nordic institutes and students should still be able to benefit from different countries’ expertise.” 

The expertise is about more than what happens under the Earth’s crust.

“Much of NordVulk’s research is very relevant for the other Nordic countries, for instance, the CarbFix project which is central to climate change. This is not only about what has already happened, but it is also about how to limit future climate change.”

Freysteinn Sigmundsson believes NurdVulk is very important to the international geological research cooperation that the Nordic countries participate in.

“It would be a great loss if NordVulk disappeared. It provides the Nordics with the energy to cooperate in this area of expertise and it secures training for Nordic researchers across a wide field of vulcanology. Volcanos have more or less shaped the rock that the Nordic countries sit on, and students who come here learn more about the process by studying other Nordic countries. This is of great importance.” 

A life-changing event

Eemu Ranta

Finnish geologist Eemu Ranta arrived in Iceland in 2017 on a NordVulk scholarship. He is still there and plans to take his PhD later this year.

Ranta took his bachelor’s degree in geology in Stockholm. One of his mentors there had been to Iceland on a NordVulk scholarship for his PhD project.

“This was always on my mind. I moved home to Finland to take my master’s, and when it was time to study further I sent off an application to NordVulk to study in Iceland.” 

When Ranta came to Iceland, the landscape there surprised him.

“It is a fantastic country, especially for a geologist who has lived in countries like Finland and Sweden where the landscapes don’t change much. In Finland, the rock you stand on was created 1.5 billion years ago. In Iceland, it is being created all the time."

And right now this is happening in Geldingadalir.  

“Watching this is life-changing for me. I had almost lost hope to be able to witness an eruption in Iceland. There is normally one every fourth or fifth year. So if you stay here for four years you are in fact a little unlucky if it doesn’t happen.”

Eemu Ranta’s group study geophysics – what rock is made of and how it travels through Earth's crust to the surface. 

“We went to Geldingadalir to take samples for the first time two days after the eruption began, and we have gone there regularly ever since. We analyse the sample material to get a clearer idea of what is happening in this eruption. So it has been a very good experience.” 

Ranta says the eruption has also been important to him professionally since his main interest is what happens in the mantle right below Earth’s crust. 

“You don’t get samples from there very often like this eruption has provided us with. The magma comes from very deep within Earth, so it is a fantastic opportunity to be able to see it in real life. But it is also fantastic to see how lava flows form. It is far more chaotic than you might think from looking at old lava in Iceland. You get a completely new view of how this happens.”

Ranta will carry out a short research project in Iceland after finishing his PhD. The project ends next summer, and what happens next is not clear. But he is sure his experience from Iceland will come in handy. 

“And that is not only about witnessing eruptions. It has also been fantastic to see the geothermal areas which I had been studying in Finland. If it wasn’t for NordVulk, I would not have been able to come to Iceland for my PhD,” says Eemu Ranta.

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