EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

What can we learn from previous generations? Álftaver’s experience of the 1918 Katla eruption

Guðrún Gísladóttir1,2,3, Deanne Bird1, and Emmanuel Pagneux4
Guðrún Gísladóttir et al.
  • 1University of Iceland Institute of Life and Environmental Sciences
  • 2University of Iceland Institute of Earth Sciences
  • 3University of Iceland Nordic Volcanological Center Institute of Earth Sciences
  • 4Agricultural University of Iceland Faculty of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Residents in Álftaver, south Iceland, are very familiar with the 1918 Katla volcanic eruption, which caused rapid and catastrophic glacial outburst flooding of the area. Descriptions of the 1918 events, passed down by older generations, have become an important part of the collective memory. Based on oral and written history, this paper provides a vivid account, including detailed maps, of what people experienced and felt during the 1918 Katla eruption. It also considers how these experiences influence current-day perceptions and the impact this may have on behavior in relation to emergency response strategies. Until now, much of this history has only been accessible in Icelandic text and through oral stories. The aim of this paper is to unlock these stories for an international audience in an effort to advance understanding of volcanic eruptions and their impacts and, inform future emergency planning. Importantly, these descriptions tell us about the nature of the glacial outburst flood, with a ‘pre-flood’ devoid of ice and travelling at a much faster rate than the ice-laden main flood. As a future eruption of Katla may impact Álftaver, emergency response plans for glacial outburst floods were developed, and in March 2006 preliminary plans were tested in a full-scale evacuation exercise involving residents and emergency response groups. But Álftaver residents questioned the plans and were reluctant to follow evacuation orders during the exercise, as they felt their knowledge and the experience of their relatives during the 1918 Katla eruption, had not been taken into consideration. Residents were concerned that flood hazards, as well as tephra and lightning, were not appropriately accounted for by officials. In response to residents’ concerns, officials developed an alternative evacuation plan (Plan B) that builds on some of the experience and knowledge of Álftaver residents. However, residents were not involved in the development of ‘Plan B’ and they are not aware of what it constitutes or when it is to be implemented. This paper argues that more needs to be done to promote inclusive dialogue and the co-production of knowledge to ensure emergency response strategies adequately reflect and accommodate local knowledge, perspectives and planned behavior.

How to cite: Gísladóttir, G., Bird, D., and Pagneux, E.: What can we learn from previous generations? Álftaver’s experience of the 1918 Katla eruption, EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-12884,, 2022.