The world is watching Iceland after a series of small earthquakes and warnings from seismologists that a volcanic eruption is imminent. How dangerous is it?
The seismic activity is happening north of the fishing community of Grindavik, a harbour town on Iceland’s southern peninsula which saw its population of 3,400 people evacuated ten days ago. It is unclear when they will be able to return to their homes, even if there is no immediate eruption. Officials declared a state of emergency after it was realised a magma lake is building up below the Earth’s surface there and now extends at least 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) from the town out into the Atlantic Ocean, according to the Civil Protection Agency.
Lava threat to power plant
Reports from the country’s Met Office said on 18 November that “approximately 1,700 earthquakes have been recorded in the last 24 hours, 1,000 of those recorded since midnight.” They have warned that magma could now be “very high up under the Earth’s crust”.
Based on radar imagery from 18 and 19 November 2023, the latest interferogram of the magma intrusion and the surrounding area shows significant crustal uplift in the vicinity of Svartsengi. https://t.co/9vYBBjNKMH pic.twitter.com/REnTjf2dRM— Veðurstofa Íslands / Icelandic Met Office (@Vedurstofan) November 20, 2023
Visible signs of the seismic activity include large cracks appearing in roads, making them impassable. One of the country’s main power plants, a geothermal facility near Grindavik has had defensive walls installed to protect it from lava.
Alert levels and warnings
The country’s aviation threat level is at orange, meaning that “a volcano is exhibiting heightened unrest with increased likelihood of eruption. Or, volcanic eruption is underway with no or minor ash emission,” according the Met Office. The UK and the USA have both issued travel warnings for the area.
Yet, just 31 km (18 miles) from the evacuated town, the country’s main aviation hub, Reykjavik’s Keflavik Airport, is still open, as are all roads in and out at the time of writing.
Ash clouds and airports
Many eyes will be on the airport. While Iceland suffers regular large earthquakes, averaging one every five years according to the government, these rarely result in any injuries, let alone loss of life, and travel usually continues without issues. These had not been major news stories until international attention became focused on the so-called land of fire and ice in 2010. That eruption resulted in massive ash clouds billowing into the atmosphere, disrupting air travel with cancellations and delays far and wide for around a month. Those travelling soon should check insurance policies and keep on top of updates from airlines and airports.
While the country’ tourism office said “air traffic disturbance cannot be entirely ruled out,” it noted that scientists consider it “an unlikely scenario.” Highlighting three recent relatively trouble free eruptions on the same peninsula, the tourism body, said “the potential disruption to flight traffic would depend on factors such as the location and size of the eruption. Typically, the impact of volcanic eruptions is confined to specific, localized areas,” the agency said.
Some businesses and attractions have closed due to the risks, including the Blue Lagoon. Visitors should check domestic trips and routes before setting out.
If the government’s tone is anything to go by, the new threat could be on a surprising scale. In a statement it evoked a destructive 1973 earthquake, as well as a sense of nostalgic camaraderie. “It is clear that we are dealing with events that we Icelanders have not experienced before, at least not since the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar,” the government said, referencing a 1973 eruption which lasted six months, and resulted in an evacuated island and the destruction of many homes. “We got through it together, we’ll get through it together and we won’t give up.”