A volcanic eruption has begun in the southwest of Iceland after several weeks of relative calm in the area, threatening an evacuated fishing town, a power plant and the country’s main tourist attraction.
Lava is spewing out of the ground close to Grindavik, a town of about 3,700 inhabitants that had been emptied in early November following intense seismic activity. It sits on the Reykjanes Peninsula, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of the capital.
The eruption began at 10:17 p.m. local time on Monday, the Met Office said. A Coast Guard helicopter will take off shortly to confirm the exact location and size of the eruption, it said. There are currently no disruptions to arrivals or departures at the main international airport, Keflavik.
“We have an effusive lava-producing eruption in a two-to-three kilometer fissure situated north of Grindavik with lava fountains reaching heights well above 100 meters (330 feet),” Thor Thordarson, professor in volcanology and petrology at University of Iceland, said by phone. “It’s a relatively high discharge eruption, definitely more than what we saw in the previous eruptions in this area.”
The whole peninsula had lain dormant for almost 800 years until early 2020, when intense seismic activity started and magma rose to the surface in 2021, only to emerge again in August 2022 and July this year.
The lava flows seen before Monday’s rupture were fissure eruptions producing no ash and located further away from inhabited areas and infrastructure. Eruptions that extend into the sea are more likely to become explosive, producing ash that could halt air traffic.
“I don‘t think this will have a huge effect on air traffic,” said Thordarson. “But potentially this will have a serious and significant impact on local communities and infrastructure including the town of Grindavik, the Blue Lagoon and Svartsengi power plant.”
In 2010, volcano Eyjafjallajokull in the southern part of the country released a vast plume of ash grounding air traffic across Europe for weeks. Air regulations have since changed, making any interruption less likely to be as widespread as in 2010.
Iceland, which has 30 volcanic systems and more than 600 hot springs, is one of the most geologically active places on earth, due to its position on the mid-Atlantic ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates rift apart.
Though eruptions aren’t infrequent, residents haven’t experienced an event which threatens inhabited areas of this scale since an eruption in 1973 in the Westman Islands buried part of a town of some 5,000 people under lava.
Monday’s eruption is close to Iceland’s biggest tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon, and the Svartsengi power plant owned by HS Orka hf, which provides heat to about 30,000 inhabitants of peninsula, as well as other businesses centered around geothermal heat.
“For Grindavik, it unfortunately looks like this is the worst possible location for an eruption,” Thordarson said.