The Öræfajökull area is heavily influenced by glacial dynamics due to the presence of the Öræfajökull and the Vatnajökull ice caps, which cover the 2110m high stratovolcano Öræfajökull and for which glacial foreland and outwash plains surrounds the Öræfajökull massif. Because of the high topographic relief, the southerly aspect and the wet maritime climate (precipitation up to 4000mm/yr) the Öræfajökull ice cap is very sensitive to climate changes and rapid changes in the glacial outlines, in the glacial foreland and in the outwash plains have been observed (e.g. Bennett et al., 2010; Hannesdóttir et al., in prep.; Gudmundsson, 2012).

The rapid retreat of the Vatnajökull ice cap causes isostatic uplift. Consequently, the area around Vatnajökull rises up to 23mm/yr (Auriac, 2014). This uplift, combined with the steep relief, the glacial erosion, the amount of loose unconsolidated debris, thawing of permafrost and high precipitation rates make the Öræfajökull area very susceptible to slope instability causing, e.g., landslides and debris flows.

The Öræfajökull massif is composed of both lava flows, hyaloclastite and intrusions of both basaltic and altered silicic rocks as well as sedimentary rocks, showing that the volcano has been active in more than 0.5 Ma (e.g., Thorarinsson, 1958; Stevenson et al., 2006). In historical times there have been two explosive eruptions from Öræfajökull, a small basaltic-andesite eruption in AD 1727–1728 and the larger rhyolitic eruption of AD 1362 (Thorarinsson, 1958; Prestvik, 1979, 1982; Sharma et al., 2008). Both events were followed by significant glacier outburst floods, which together with the volcanic activity destroyed the communities around Öræfajökull. Furthermore, the area is affected by Grímsvötn’s frequent eruptions depositing ash. In recent years, the area surrounding Öræfajökull has become a huge tourist attraction due to the Skaftafell national park.

The landscape is therefore exposed to tourists that impact the land cover and at the same time they are exposed to the risk from landslides, floods and volcanic eruptions. The Öræfajökull area is a prime example to study changes in a dynamic glaciated area causing a complex range of related ecological and geological responses. Linkage between processes will be investigated including positive and negative feedback mechanisms on deglaciation, river changes, slope instability such as landslides and soil and vegetation migration.