Icelanders given just minutes to clear homes after town is ripped in half by crack
Some people ran to their homes in Grindavik, Iceland to grab Christmas presents.
Locals of the Icelandic fishing village Grindavik have been given just five minutes to run home and grab their things as the threat of a volcanic eruption looms.
The Reykjanes Peninsula volcanism had laid dormant for 800 years until it awoke in 2020, with the Fagradalsfjall volcano erupting just a year later.
But a spell of thousands of earthquakes in the last week – including 24,000 on November 10 – has raised fears that Reykjanes will burst once again.
Deep cracks have appeared in the earth around Grindavik, splitting streets, uprooting buildings and closing the nearby tourist spot the Blue Lagoon.
The Icelandic Meteorological Office warned today there remains a ‘significant likelihood’ the volcano will blow, with 900 tremors shaking the peninsula between midnight and 4pm yesterday alone and 700 recorded today.
‘Significant likelihood of a volcanic eruption in the coming days. Models show a 15km long magma intrusion located just northwest of Grindavik,’ the weather agency said on X.
Emergency officials are pounding the now-broken pavement of Grindavik whose 3,000 residents have been warned they’ll unlikely return home for days.
One fissure some 1.2 metres deep has torn through the town centre, with hot water pipes broken sending steam into the air and a local sports centre perched on a metre-high pedestal after the earth was pushed below it, the Icelandic public broadcaster RÚV reported.
Grindvikings, having spent four nights away from home, have been given just five minutes today to grab their belongings from their homes.
From 12pm to 4pm today, each area of the town will be given a slot for residents to collect valuables and basic necessities, Suðurnes police said.
Iceland Monitor reported that one family raced back home to grab their Christmas presents.
‘There is a risk associated with this, and it is therefore very important that everyone involved carefully obeys all the instructions of the police who are leading this operation and respects the time limit,’ the peninsula police force added.
All roads remain closed, with evacuees meeting at a car park by the previous eruption site, Fagradalsfjall.
The aviation colour code – which tells pilots about a volcano’s status – for the southwest region remains today at orange.
An orange code means a volcano is exhibiting ‘moderate’ unrest and spewed ash may pose a risk to flights. Flights to and from Iceland’s international airport at Keflavík nearby have not been affected.
Iceland is no stranger to volcanoes. The country has about 130 volcanoes, most of which are active, as it sits above a ‘hot spot,’ a place with ‘abnormally high magma activity,’ according to the country’s tourism website’.
Dr Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at Britain’s University College London, says volcanoes are one way the Earth cools off in the heat.
‘Molten rock formed in the uppermost part of the Earth’s mantle – which lies beneath the crust – rises due to buoyancy and reaches the surface by breaking rock or finding a weakness.
‘Here it erupts, either violently resulting in an ash cloud or quietly, generating lava flows.’
Reykjanes is no stranger to this, McGuire says, and magma could greet the peninsula in ‘the next few days’.
Iceland’s southwestern tip straddles the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, themselves separated by an undersea mountain chain that spits out magma.
As the plates pull apart, it allows magma to bubble up to the surface. Earthquakes ensue as the magma rises and creates stresses and fractures.
The current looming eruption is bubbling between the Fagradalsfjall and Keilir volcanic mountains, about 25 miles southwest of Reykjavik, the coastal capital.
‘An eruption happened here in 2021 – the first in 6,000 years at this location. Now magma is on the move again,’ McGuire said.
‘The eruption is most likely to be what we call “effusive” resulting in spectacular “lava fountaining” and the production of lava flows.
‘The eruption is likely to be small to moderate and could last for anything from several weeks to several months.’
Matt Watson, professor of volcanoes and climate at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, says if the point at which the pooling magma spills ‘is close to Grindavik, it risks being destroyed’.
The spreading underground magma – creating what volcanologists call a dike – ‘extends beyond Grindavik and potentially below the sea,’ Watson said.
‘That introduces the possibility of an underwater eruption. Iceland is famous for these types of eruptions and they can be very explosive. That potentially broadens the risk beyond just the town and surrounding populations.’
Many fear there will be a repeat of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, which spewed so much ash flights were grounded in Europe for weeks.
Probably not though, both Watson and McGuire say.
Eyjafjallajökull, one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, had been inactive for nearly two centuries before gently stirring to life in March that year.
But it soon turned into a fountain of flames, lava about 20 metres thick crawling out of the mountain and ash as high as 11,000 metres sent into the skies for months.
‘Eyjafjallajökull is quite a different eruption,’ Watson said. ‘The eruption occurred under a glacier, increasing explosivity, as did tapping a more viscous magma towards the end of the eruption that hasn’t been seen in Reykjanes to date.’
The wind blowing the ash into Europe didn’t help either at the time, leading to aviation disruption. But this is unlikely to happen with Reykjanes, with the wind rarely blowing southeast this time of year.
McGuire added: ‘This one will almost certainly be lava-dominated, and even if it erupts under the sea, it will not be as violent as in 2010.’
Volcanic eruptions are among the most cataclysmic events on Earth and understanding how and when they happen can be life-saving.
Predicting a volcano is a tall order for weather officials and scientists, with Iceland’s official website admitting they are ‘entirely random’.
‘I guess the best-case scenario is that it just stops,’ Watson said. ‘Sadly, this doesn’t seem very likely.’
For McGuire, the ‘worst-case scenario’ is bleak. Think the 1783 Laki eruption that saw ‘colossal quantities of lava and noxious gases’ thrown up that poisoned livestock, leading to a famine that wiped out a quarter of the population, with ripple effects far beyond.
All of that could happen. Then again, probably not, says McGuire,
‘There is no reason to think that this will happen again during the coming eruption,’ he said.
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