A volcano has erupted in the Reykjanes peninsula of Iceland, spewing lava down a fissure about 360 meters long. The eruption comes after several weeks of intense seismic activity in the region.
Timeline of Recent Events
Earthquakes have been rattling the Reykjanes peninsula since February 2021, indicating movement of magma below the surface. Over the past few months, earthquake activity escalated significantly:
- On November 30, a 5.6-magnitude quake struck the peninsula
- Through December, thousands of smaller quakes occurred daily
- This indicated a high probability of an impending volcanic eruption
The Icelandic Meteorological Office issued an eruption alert on December 14 as quakes intensified. Over the following days, several small eruptions occurred but quickly subsided. Then on the night of December 18:
- At approximately 8:45 PM local time, lava finally breached the surface in the Meradalir valley
- Fissures opened up along a 360-meter ridge, allowing lava to spew out
- Spectacular lava fountains shot as high as 100 meters into the air
Authorities have already evacuated around 1,000 residents from the nearby towns of Grindavik and Thorlakshofn as a precautionary measure. Lava has so far missed populated areas, but the situation remains unpredictable. Poisonous gases steaming from the lava flows pose a significant health hazard if winds shift direction.
Police have also urgently warned sightseers against visiting the eruption zone. Gases emitted by the lava can be lethal, especially if inhaled at close proximity.
Air Travel Impact
So far, the eruption has not affected air travel or the international Keflavik airport which serves Reykjavik. Past eruptions have disrupted hundreds of flights, leading to days of air travel chaos across Europe.
Keflavik lies over 20 miles from the eruption site on the Reykjanes peninsula. However, officials caution that winds could still carry volcanic ash plumes towards the airport. For now, favorable winds have directed ash away from Reykjavik.
|Meradalir valley, Reykjanes peninsula
|December 18, 2022 (8:45 PM local time)
|Flowing from a 360-meter long fissure
|Highest Lava Fountain
|Approximately 100 meters
|~1,000 residents so far
|Air Travel Impact
|None yet – winds carrying ash away from Keflavik airport
Lava Unlikely to Reach Reykjavik
Given the distance between the eruption site and Iceland’s capital region, scientists believe lava flows are extremely unlikely to reach Reykjavik or other populated centers. However, gas emissions and ash fallout may yet pose problems.
Authorities are carefully tracking the direction of lava flows and prevailing winds. A continuous eruption over weeks or months could increase threats to populated areas.
Lead Up to the Eruption
Iceland sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates gradually spread apart. This builds up pressure which periodically releases itself through rifts and volcanoes on the island.
The Reykjanes peninsula is one such active rift zone featuring multiple volcanoes. Its famous Blue Lagoon is a popular hot spring heated by geothermal activity associated with the rift.
While Sunday’s eruption may seem sudden, experts have been anticipating renewed activity in the region since 2021 when earthquakes signaled fresh magma intrusions. Similar seismic activity preceded eruptions along the Reykjanes rift in the 13th and 15th centuries.
What Happens Next?
Volcanic eruptions in Iceland can continue for weeks, months or even years. The latest eruption is expected to be relatively small on this scale. While lava output is gradually declining, the Icelandic Meteorological Office expects significant activity to continue in the near future.
If lava volume increases substantially, flows could extend further and threaten infrastructure like roads and power plants – albeit not major population centers.
Officials are keeping a close watch to provide advance warning if lava starts approaching farmland, towns or critical infrastructure. The impacted region on the Reykjanes peninsula is thinly populated, but has important geothermal power plants.
Meanwhile, changing wind patterns remain a concern due to toxic volcanic gases. These emissions can also interact with snow to produce flooding when emitted in large volumes.
For now, scientists caution there are still uncertainties given this is a rapidly developing situation. Iceland’s emergency response teams are on high alert to respond to any escalation in the eruption or shift in lava flows.
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