Will the volcano eruption in Iceland affect flights and how serious is it?

By | December 19, 2023

LONDON (AP) — Scientists had been anticipating the eruption of a volcano in southwestern Iceland for weeks, so when it happened Monday night it was no surprise. The region had been active for more than two years and thousands of small earthquakes have rocked the area in recent weeks.

Here’s a look at what happened and what might happen next:

How the eruption unfolded

It started on Monday around 10:20 pm local time north of Grindavik, a fishing village with 3,400 inhabitants on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The city is located about 50 kilometers southwest of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, in an area commonly known as the Fagradalsfjall volcano.

First there was a series of small earthquakes. Then lava of about 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,192 degrees Fahrenheit) began flowing from a gorge about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long. The Icelandic Meteorological Office estimates that hundreds of cubic meters of lava flowed per second in the first two hours after the eruption, although activity had decreased significantly by Tuesday afternoon.

WAS IT UNEXPECTED?

In short, no – scientists had been expecting the eruption for several weeks, and in November authorities evacuated Grindavik after thousands of small earthquakes shook the area for more than two weeks. Scientists said their monitors showed that a corridor of magma, or semi-molten rock, was spreading towards the city and could soon reach the surface.

The nearby Blue Lagoon geothermal resort, one of Iceland’s best-known tourist attractions, was forced to close temporarily as a precaution after a magnitude 4.8 earthquake struck the area last month.

Fagradalsfjall had been dormant for around 6,000 years, but came back to life in March 2021, when hundreds of people flocked to the Reykjanes Peninsula to witness spectacular lava flows that lasted for months. The red glow of the lava was visible from the capital’s outskirts.

WILL THIS ERUPTION AFFECT FLIGHTS?

None of the recent eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula caused damage or disruptions to flights, despite the area’s proximity to the main Keflavik airport. And while Monday’s eruption appears larger and more powerful than those in recent years, forecasters and scientists say it is unlikely to impact air travel.

Many remember the massive disruptions to international aviation in 2010, when another Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, spewed gigantic clouds of ash high into the atmosphere above Europe. About 100,000 flights were grounded, millions of international travelers were stranded and air travel was halted for days over concerns that the fine ash could damage jet engines.

Experts say the location and characteristics of this eruption mean it is not expected to produce much ash or cause a similar scale of disruption. AccuWeather, a US-based weather forecasting company, said on Tuesday that initial information shows that no ash cloud has yet been observed.

Sam Mitchell, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol, says Monday’s eruption is very different from that of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010, when “a large explosive eruption under a glacier produced a very large cloud and very fine ash in the atmosphere as the wind direction towards mainland Europe.”

WHAT OTHER IMPACT COULD THIS ERUPTION HAVE?

Scientists say there is currently no threat of the lava reaching the city of Grindavik or important structures such as nearby power plants. Residents in the area have been evacuated and most surrounding roads remain closed.

But scientists warn the situation could change and it is too early to say how long the eruption will last or when local residents will be able to move back into their homes.

“Even though the lava has not erupted in the town of Grindavik or at the nearby power station and popular tourist destination, the Blue Lagoon, the lava flows are still only a few kilometers away and there are still concerns about lava reaching these important sites. Mitchell said.

The molten lava flowing above the ground could also increase the risk of poor air quality in the region due to increased sulfur dioxide levels in the air, according to AccuWeather. The Icelandic Met Office predicts that gas pollution could be detected in the Reykjavik area later Tuesday or Wednesday.

A volcanologist, Ármann Höskuldsson, told Icelandic state broadcaster RUV that he expected the eruption could last a week to 10 days. “If everything is normal, this will disappear tomorrow afternoon,” he said.

How common are volcanic eruptions in ICELAND?

Iceland is one of the most volcanically active areas on Earth, with 32 active volcanic sites. On average, an eruption occurs every four to five years, although the frequency has increased closer to every twelve months since 2021.

The country sits atop a volcanic hotspot and what’s called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a huge crack in the ocean floor caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As the plates pull apart, new magma rises to fill the gaps, causing earthquakes and volcanic activity.

One of the country’s largest active volcanoes is Katla, which is closely monitored because it lies under thick glacial ice, meaning any eruption could melt the ice and cause widespread flooding. Katla last erupted in 1918, and that eruption lasted almost a month, starving crops of sunlight and killing some livestock.

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