Volcanic Unrest in Southwest Iceland: Eruption Exceeds Predictions, Threatening Evacuated Town and Power Plant

Monday’s volcanic eruption, although anticipated, exceeded the predictions of volcanologists and occurred near an evacuated town and a power plant.

In southwestern Iceland, the nation’s most densely populated area, a volcano erupted on Monday, sending lava fountains soaring into the sky and casting a glow visible miles away in Reykjavik’s city center.

The fissure’s location, rapidly expanding to approximately 2.5 miles, is near the Svartsengi Power Plant and the evacuated town of Grindavík, which had been cleared last month due to heightened seismic activity, raising concerns about an imminent eruption.

During the initial assessment on Monday night, volcanologists expressed alarm, stating that the eruption took place in one of the worst possible locations, posing an immediate and significant threat to both the evacuated town and the geothermal power plant.

However, after conducting aerial surveys of the Reykjanes Peninsula eruption site, volcanologists revised their assessment. The immediate situation did not seem as dire as initially feared, though the eruption’s size exceeded expectations, and the lava’s flow direction remained unpredictable.

Why Iceland’s Latest Volcanic Eruption Looks So Different – WSJ

Magnus Gudmundsson, a volcanologist and one of the first observers to witness the eruption from the air, conveyed to The New York Times, “This is larger than previous eruptions on Reykjanes.”

As of now, lava is streaming just 2.5 kilometers north of Grindavík, equivalent to 1.6 miles, as reported by Kristín Jonsdottir, the head of the volcanic activity department at the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

Despite the significant scale of the eruption and the evacuation of the town of Grindavík, a police official, Ulfar Ludviksson, reassured reporters that there is currently no risk to people.

Nevertheless, authorities are advising caution and urging the public to refrain from approaching the area. Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Department of Civil Protection, emphasized that this is “no tourist volcano,” underscoring the importance of staying away from the vicinity.

Despite weeks of anticipation and a series of preceding earthquakes, Monday’s eruption occurred without any immediate warning. The Blue Lagoon, a prominent tourist destination nearby, had reopened for guests on Sunday as concerns about an imminent eruption had subsided.

Since late October, the Icelandic Meteorological Office recorded thousands of earthquakes in Iceland. In November, facing damages to homes and roads, the authorities declared a state of emergency and evacuated Grindavik, a town with a population of over 3,000 situated near the volcano.

The nation has experienced similar occurrences frequently in the past:

In the last two years alone, there have been four eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is Iceland’s most densely populated area and houses its capital. When the evacuation order for Grindavik was issued on November 11, the authorities emphasized the country’s high level of preparedness for such events, stating on their website that Iceland boasts one of the world’s most effective volcanic preparedness measures.

In response to the eruption, the authorities raised the aviation alert to orange due to the potential risk posed to aircraft flying in the North Atlantic if the ash were to be ejected into the sky. However, as of Monday night, Iceland’s main airport, Keflavik, remained operational, as the current eruption did not produce ash significant enough to halt flights.

Reflecting on Iceland’s volcanic history, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010 stands out. Although relatively small and without fatalities, the impact was widespread as the resulting ash cloud grounded much of Europe’s air travel for over a week. The Eyjafjallajokull volcano, dormant for nearly two centuries, unexpectedly came back to life more than 13 years ago.

Iceland is home to numerous volcanoes:

Volcanic eruptions are a common phenomenon in Iceland, a country with just under 400,000 residents and approximately 130 volcanoes. According to Iceland’s tourist website, there hasn’t been a single decade since the 19th century without a volcanic eruption. The occurrence of these eruptions is described as “entirely random.”

Iceland’s unique geological position involves straddling two tectonic plates, separated by an undersea mountain chain that releases molten hot rock, or magma.

Despite the current seismic activity, one of Iceland’s well-known volcanoes, Katla, remains unaffected. Some scientists express concerns that Katla is overdue for an eruption, as it has erupted five times since 1721, with intervals ranging from 34 to 78 years. The most recent major eruption occurred in 1918.

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