Volcano erupts on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, weeks after the city was evacuated

By | December 19, 2023

A volcano erupted dramatically in Iceland on Monday, sending spectacular eruptions of lava and smoke lighting up the night sky after weeks of seismic activity prompted the evacuation of a nearby town.

The eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula started around 10 p.m. local time, following an earthquake about an hour earlier, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said in a statement.

The office reported that the eruption was located close to Hagafell, about 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) north of the town of Grindavík.

The Icelandic Coast Guard posted a video on Facebook showing one of its helicopters at the scene, hovering above a long line of glowing lava spouting from the crack in the ground. The sky is shrouded in smoke and illuminated in glowing shades of orange and red.

The Icelandic Coast Guard flies a helicopter over the site of the volcanic eruption in Sundhnuk, Iceland on December 19, 2023. - Icelandic Coast Guard

The Icelandic Coast Guard flies a helicopter over the site of the volcanic eruption in Sundhnuk, Iceland on December 19, 2023. – Icelandic Coast Guard

In a statement on Tuesday, the Icelandic government said the opening of the gorge is almost four kilometers long. It is the fourth eruption in the area since 2021 and the largest to date, the statement said.

An evacuation order was issued last month for Grindavík and nearby settlements, preventing residents from spending the night in their homes as the threat of a volcanic eruption loomed, public broadcaster RÚV reported.

The city of more than 3,000 inhabitants, which at one point was at risk of being in the path of flowing lava, is now free of inhabitants, RÚV reported, citing police. It is a popular spot for tourists as it is about 7 kilometers away from the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa.

The eruption poses no threat to life, the Icelandic government said in its statement. The area has been closed to all traffic, it added, while strongly warning people not to approach the area.

Although the eruption is not expected to affect populated areas or critical infrastructure in the coming days, and will no longer reach Grindavík, it will release “significant” toxic gases, the Icelandic Tourist Board said on Tuesday.

“People are strongly advised not to visit the eruption site while emergency workers and scientists assess the situation,” the tourism agency added.

On December 18, 2023, north of Grindavik, Iceland, a volcano erupts on the Reykjanes Peninsula near the power plant.  -Micah Garen/Getty ImagesOn December 18, 2023, north of Grindavik, Iceland, a volcano erupts on the Reykjanes Peninsula near the power plant.  -Micah Garen/Getty Images

On December 18, 2023, north of Grindavik, Iceland, a volcano erupts on the Reykjanes Peninsula near the power plant. -Micah Garen/Getty Images

There are currently no disruptions to flights to and from Iceland and international flight corridors remain open, the government said.

It added that the eruption is classified as a fissure eruption, which does not usually result in large explosions or significant production of ash spread into the stratosphere.

According to the Icelandic Meteorological Office, hundreds of cubic meters of lava per second were released in the first two hours after the eruption. But the intensity of the eruption and the level of seismic activity in the area had subsided by early Tuesday, with lava spreading laterally on either side of the newly opened fissures.

The intense wave of hundreds of earthquakes last month led to a national emergency after the country’s Civil Protection Agency said a magma tunnel was forming that could reach Grindavík.

“It is clear that we are dealing with events that we Icelanders have not experienced before, at least not since the Vestmannaeyjar eruption,” the agency said, referring to a 1973 eruption that started without warning and destroyed 400 homes.

People watch as the night sky is lit up by the eruption of a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwestern Iceland, as seen from the capital Reykjavik on December 18, 2023. - Brynjar Gunnarsson/APPeople watch as the night sky is lit up by the eruption of a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwestern Iceland, as seen from the capital Reykjavik on December 18, 2023. - Brynjar Gunnarsson/AP

People watch as the night sky is lit up by the eruption of a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwestern Iceland, as seen from the capital Reykjavik on December 18, 2023. – Brynjar Gunnarsson/AP

The Blue Lagoon, which draws tourists to its steamy waters, was closed for a while last month after the first signs of a possible eruption. It had just reopened to guests on Sunday, but said on Tuesday it was temporarily closed again due to the eruption.

Authorities also said in November they were preparing a protective trench around a geothermal power plant about 7 kilometers from Grindavík, which provides electricity and geothermal water to heat homes for a population of 30,000 on the peninsula.

Home to volcanoes

Iceland sits on a tectonic plate boundary that is continually splitting apart, pushing North America and Eurasia away from each other along the line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is home to 32 active volcanoes.

As such, the island nation is accustomed to volcanic eruptions, although these often occur in the wilderness, far away from populated areas. The Bárðarbunga volcanic system, located in the center of the country, erupted in 2014, producing lava that covered 84 square kilometers (32 sq mi) of highland and did not damage any communities.

The Fagradalsfjall volcanic system erupted in 2021 for the first time in more than 6,000 years. It also posed no threat to populated areas and even became a tourist attraction as people flocked to witness the eruption.

Experts do not expect a volcanic eruption to cause the same level of chaos as 2010’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption, as glacial ice is unlikely to have created a massive ash cloud.

About 100,000 flights were canceled, affecting 2 million people, due to the ash spewed by the 2010 eruption, which threatened to stall aircraft engines and cause electrical faults.

“Eyjafjallajökull was an eruption through or next to glacial ice that melted and produced water that made the eruption more explosive than it would otherwise have been, hence the high eruption plume and very wide ash dispersion,” Lionel Wilson, Professor Emeritus of Earth & Planetary Sciences at Lancaster University, told CNN last month.

This is a current news item and will be updated.

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