A volcano erupted in southwestern Iceland on Sunday, sending lava flowing towards the fishing town of Grindavík for the second time in a matter of weeks. The eruption poses a risk to the 3,500 residents of the town located on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
Evacuations Underway As Lava Approaches Grindavík
Around 300 residents of Grindavík have been evacuated so far as lava moves closer to the town, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO). Evacuations began on Sunday morning after authorities detected increased seismic activity and ground deformation the night before, signaling an imminent eruption.
The IMO has warned that the current lava flows are the “worst-case scenario” as they threaten a community built up over generations. Lava is flowing from two fissures located just 500-800 meters from the nearest residential areas of Grindavík.
“We can see the glowing red lava. It is bubbling and flowing; it’s a very spectacular sight,” said Grindavík resident Elín Björg Ragnarsdóttir.
Lava Engulfs Homes And Burns Down Buildings
By Sunday evening, lava had already destroyed at least three houses in Grindavík and threatened many more. Dramatic footage shows lava swallowing up houses and setting structures ablaze.
“We heard screaming. Then we saw the lava set a house on fire and bury another one,” recounted local resident Guðlaugur Ingi Guðlaugsson. “Thankfully the wind turned, pushing the lava away from the center of town.”
Over 20 utility poles have also burned after being engulfed by lava. The eruption caused a power outage in Grindavík although backup generators are keeping crucial facilities running.
So far no injuries or casualties have been reported. “We do not give up in the face of volcanic eruptions,” stated Icelandic President Guðni Jóhannesson.
Current Lava Flows Double The Size Seen In Earlier Eruption
The Reykjanes Peninsula volcano first erupted on January 4 after several days of heightened seismic activity. That initial eruption was smaller in scale – lava flowed for around one hour before dissipating.
In contrast, lava from Sunday’s eruption has been flowing nonstop for over 12 hours now. Geophysicists estimate that the current lava flow is at least double the size of what was observed earlier this month.
“The eruption escalated rapidly. Magma flux has increased substantially, feeding large sustained lava emissions,” explained volcanologist Haraldur Ólafsson.
Chance Of Future Explosive Eruption As Magma Builds Up
While effusive eruptions like the current one pose the greatest danger to Grindavík currently, they could also signal a more explosive eruption in the future, experts caution.
As the Reykjanes fissures continue emitting lava, pressure builds up underneath the earth’s crust. This increases the risk of an explosive eruption if magma rises into shallow pockets of groundwater. Such steam-driven explosions can hurl ash plumes high into the atmosphere.
There are signs that pressure is already building within the Reykjanes volcanic system. Recently a worker went missing after falling into a meters-wide crack that opened up just 1.5 km away from the eruption site.
“We have to prepare for the possibility this eruption turns explosive without warning,” emphasized IMO volcanic hazards coordinator Melissa Anne Pfeffer.
Residents closest to the eruption site have been given masks and told to remain alert to changing wind patterns that might carry volcanic ash their way. The IMO has also boosted monitoring for gas emissions and seismic activity.
Flight Disruptions Expected As Eruption Intensifies
While lava now poses the most imminent threat, an intensifying eruption also increases hazards for air travel. Aircraft can experience engine failure after accidentally flying through clouds of volcanic ash.
Grindavík’s busy international airport sits just 20 km away from the current eruption site. It handles over 2 million passengers annually with frequent flights to and from Europe and North America.
During 2010’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption, Icelandic aviation authorities imposed a 5-day airspace closure. This disrupted 10 million passenger trips across Europe and cost airlines an estimated $1.7 billion in lost revenue.
If Reykjanes generates big enough ash plumes, widespread flight cancellations across the North Atlantic region could occur again. German airline Lufthansa has already announced it is monitoring the situation closely and will change flight paths if necessary.
IMO experts are liaising with air traffic controllers and carriers to model scenarios and coordinate contingency plans.
Years Of Disruption Ahead As Eruption Enters Active Phase
Geologists tracking ground deformation and seismic readings in Reykjanes say all signs point towards an eruption that continues for months or years rather than days.
Relieving underground pressure requires sustained lava emissions. It took the previous Reykjanes eruption from 1210-1240 AD almost three full decades of activity before finally going dormant.
What this means for Grindavík residents is an extended period of uncertainty and upheaval. Lava pathways are notoriously difficult to predict accurately, changing course suddenly based on topography.
If lava threats subside after the initial burst of activity, citizens may be allowed temporary supervised visits to homes left intact. But reoccupation or rebuilding will only happen once volcanologists formally declare the eruption over – which could take many years.
Until then, residents will depend on government assistance and solidarity from surrounding communities. Locals are banding together, with initiatives like nationwide food and clothing donation drives already underway.
Financial analysts meanwhile are downgrading Iceland’s growth forecasts for 2024 given how economically disruptive volcano impacts can be, especially for the crucial tourism and fishing industries.
The Future Of Grindavík Hangs In The Balance
All eyes remain centered on the advancing lava flow that over the next 48 critical hours could determine Grindavík’s fate.
If lava emission rates decrease quickly, hardening flows may halt before inflicting catastrophic damage to the town. Work is underway channeling lava away using natural barriers and engineering berms.
However, if eruption vigor persists there is little that can be done to stop hundreds more buildings and key port infrastructure from destruction. That would force the permanent evacuation of the entire community – ending over eight centuries of continuous settlement.
“We watch with sadness, awe, and uncertainty. Will we return someday…or has Grindavík now been consigned to history?” despaired town archivist Aldís Skarphéðinsdóttir.
Over 30 active volcanoes dot Iceland, thrust up where two tectonic plates slowly drift apart. Their scenic views and geothermal energy attract tourists and investment – but also bestow an ever-present threat for communities built nearby.
As Grindavík stares down those menacing lava flows, all of Iceland stands in solidarity. The coming days will decide whether this tenacious fishing village can defy yet another volcano’s wrath.
Table summarizing key eruption impact stats:
|Lava flow rate
|300 cubic meters/second
|Structures destroyed so far
|At least 25
|Current lava volume
|Over 500,000 cubic meters
|Length of lava flows
|Approaching 2 kilometers
|Last eruption period
|1210-1240 AD (30 years)
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