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Studying environmental changes in Hekla volcano

11. Oct 2018
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An interdisciplinary group of research scientists and students at the University of Iceland has in recent years developed methods to survey automatically changes in Icelandic nature with focus on one of the most active volcano in the country, Hekla. The group organised the Hekla, Öræfajökull and Remote Sensing Conference that took place at the University of Iceland last Friday, introducing the results of the project. 

The project, „Environmental Mapping and Monitoring of Iceland by Remote Sensing (EMMIRS)“ received an excellence grant from the Iceland Research Fund in 2015. Numerous students and staff from the Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering; the Institute of Earth Sciences; the Faculty of Earth Sciences, and the Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Iceland have taken part in the project in addition to international and domestic collaborators. The specialisation of the participants lies in the field of remote sensing, digital image analysis, learning machines, geology, earth sciences, and environment and natural resources.

The spark for the project are the rapid and vast changes that can occur in Icelandic terrain, which can either be due to natural phenomena such as eruptions, earthquakes or ablation or human behaviour. In order to evaluate these changes and react it is vital to employ fast and reliable analytical procedures.

"The main goal of the project is to develop and implement methods for automated change detection allowing monitoring of geological and ecological changes in Iceland. In order to achieve this we use so-called remote sensing images taken from aeroplanes or satellites on different wavebands from which we extract a variety of information on the earth surface," says Jón Atli Benediktsson, rector of the University of Iceland, project leader and main applicant for the excellence grant. The technological revolution in the field of remote sensing enables researchers to acquire an enormous database for extensive periods of time. The aim of the project is thus to bring Iceland to the forefront in the field by connecting advanced information processing and mapping of Icelandic environment.

The group placed special emphasis on Hekla and surroundings in the project; as it is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland. "There have been both phreatic and magmatic eruptions in Hekla. This has greatly affected the formation of the landscape surrounding the mountain and changed both the vegetation and residency in the area throughout the ages," says Gro Birkefeldt Møller Pedersen, post-doc at the Institute of Earth Sciences and a key employee of EMMIRS. Furthermore, recent studies show that additional elements influence the environment around mount Hekla, such as bad weather, land use, grazing, the spread of invasive plants such as lupine, and climate change. There are many factors to consider when evaluating changes in the environment.
One of the most important factors in the project is the gathering of remote sensing data from Hekla with the calibration measurements that have been collected in this project. The data will be published in open source software and the research team hopes that the data will become standard key database for comparison in processing. This would enable research scientists, both domestic and international, to continue the analysis and develop methods to improve it. Scientific articles on this project have already been published in peer-reviewed journals and more are in the pipes. The results have, furthermore, been introduced at international conferences.

Remote sensing is an interdisciplinary subject and the position of the University of Iceland in the field is strong as is reflected in the recent ranking from Global Ranking of Academic Subjects, where the Universtiy is placed in the seventh seat worldwide.  Jón Atli says it important to continue to strengthen engineering, earth sciences, geography, and other disciplines within the University of Iceland with regards to remote sensing. The Center for Remote Sensing (CRS)  was established in connection with the project which will hopefully grow stronger as time passes. "Iceland is sparsely populated and our natural resources are mostly in the wilderness. Remote sensing is a technology that enables us to monitor in a simple manner large areas in the highlands. Environmental monitoring in the wilderness is important to Icelanders with regards to mapping, analysis, and safety," concludes Jón Atli. 

Further information on the project and the conference can be found on the project website.

The group placed special emphasis on Hekla and surroundings in the project; as it is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland.