After weeks of anticipation, a volcanic eruption in Iceland's most populated area spewed lava into the night sky on Monday night and forced authorities to act on Tuesday. The eruption, which was larger than volcanologists had anticipated, occurred not far from an evacuated city and a power plant.
Iceland is no stranger to volcanic eruptions and authorities quickly acted to assure the public that there was no immediate threat to life. “We are prepared and remain alert,” President Gudni Johannesson wrote on the social platform X.
They also emphasized that travel was not affected, a clear attempt to allay concerns of a repeat of 2010, when an ash cloud from another eruption in Iceland grounded flights across Europe.
Here's what you should know about the rash.
The eruption began on Monday night, with fountains of lava gushing from a fissure on the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland's most populous region and home to its capital, Reykjavik. Helicopter video shared by Iceland's Civil Defense showed steam rising from a glowing, meandering lava river.
Volcanologists initially said the eruption had occurred in one of the worst possible locations. The fissure, which is approximately 4 kilometers long, is not far from the Svartsengi power plant, a geothermal facility. And it's just under two miles from Grindavik, a town of more than 3,500 that was evacuated last month after intense seismic activity raised concerns that an eruption was likely.
But after flying over the eruption site, volcanologists said the immediate situation appeared less serious than initially feared.
Are people at risk?
Volcanologists noted that the direction of the lava flow was unpredictable. And although the Icelandic Meteorological Office said Tuesday morning that the “intensity” of the eruption was decreasing, it was not immediately clear how long it would last.
“The fact that activity is already decreasing is not an indication of how long the eruption will last, but rather that it is reaching a state of equilibrium,” the Met Office said in a statement.
However, because the affected area had previously been evacuated, the eruption “does not pose an immediate threat to people,” Iceland's tourist board said in a statement Tuesday morning.
The area was closed to traffic and the risk to nearby energy infrastructure was being assessed, the Icelandic government added in a statement.
However, authorities warned not to get too close and Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, spokesperson for the Department of Civil Protection, emphasized that it was not “a tourist volcano.”
Is it affecting travel and tourism?
Icelandic authorities had raised the air alert to orange, because ash from a volcanic eruption could pose a risk to planes flying in the North Atlantic.
But as of Tuesday morning, all flights to and from the country were operating as planned, according to a statement from Iceland's tourism office. He also noted that previous eruptions in the area had not affected air travel.
The eruption caught some in Iceland by surprise, as concerns of an imminent eruption had eased in recent days. The nearby tourist meeca, the Blue Lagoon, which had closed in November due to seismic activity associated with possible volcanic eruptions, had just reopened on Sunday.
On Tuesday morning, the site issued a statement saying it would temporarily close again.
Overall, Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson, the country's infrastructure minister, told RUV, the national broadcaster: “It seems like we've been very lucky,” adding: “We hope this continues.”
How often do volcanic eruptions occur in Iceland?
Volcanic eruptions are not uncommon in Iceland, which has fewer than 400,000 inhabitants and around 130 volcanoes. In the last two years alone, there have been four eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula, scene of the latest lava flow.
One of Iceland's most memorable eruptions was that of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010. Although it was relatively small and caused no deaths, the impact was widespread because a resulting ash cloud forced the suspension of much European air travel for more than a week. .
Iceland straddles two tectonic plates, which are in turn divided by an underwater mountain range oozing hot molten rock.
Earthquakes occur when magma breaks through plates, and starting in late October, an increase in seismic activity was detected, with tens of thousands of earthquakes reported on the Reykjanes Peninsula. At one point there were as many as 1,400 in a single 24-hour period.
That raised concerns that a significant eruption would soon occur. But when the evacuation of Grindavik was ordered on November 11, authorities said in a statement that the country was “highly prepared for such events.”
“Iceland has one of the most effective volcanic preparedness measures in the world,” Iceland's Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management said on its website.
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