Iceland braces for a potential volcanic eruption

As Iceland prepares for a potential volcanic eruption, the nation has declared a state of emergency, prompting the evacuation of over 3,000 residents from the coastal town of Grindavík in the southwestern peninsula. The Icelandic authorities, particularly scientists from Iceland’s Met Office, have noted changes in the situation, suggesting that magma might be nearing the surface. On Monday, it was determined that the primary area of magma upwelling is approximately 3.5 kilometres northeast of Grindavík.

The looming eruption raises questions about its nature, associated risks, potential travel disruptions, and the geological factors contributing to Iceland’s seismic activity. If the volcano erupts, it would be an unprecedented event for the country’s 360,000 residents, reminiscent of the unexpected 1973 eruption in Vestmannaeyjar that destroyed 400 homes.

The Civil Protection Agency reports a 15-kilometer-long magma corridor extending from just northwest of Grindavík into the Atlantic Ocean, based on data collected on Saturday. Magma, a mix of molten and semi-molten rock beneath the Earth’s surface, can lead to eruptions when it reaches the surface, manifesting as lava. Experts suggest that an underwater eruption would be more explosive due to the interaction with seawater, with the potential for a Surtseyan eruption similar to the 1963 incident that formed the island of Surtsey.

Despite uncertainties, experts like Michele Paulatto from Imperial College London and Bill McGuire from University College London offer insights. While Paulatto emphasizes the potential explosiveness if the magma interacts with seawater, McGuire notes the difficulty in predicting the eruption’s size. The evacuated town of Grindavík faces an uncertain fate, depending on where the magma eventually reaches the surface.

There remains a possibility that the magma may not breach the surface at all, as pointed out by volcanologist Dave McGarvie from the University of Lancaster. He suggests that the best-case scenario is the dike formed by the magma cooling and solidifying without erupting. Nevertheless, seismic activity has already taken a toll on the region, with damaged roads and infrastructure resulting from earthquakes.

In response to the potential threat, the Civil Protection Agency evacuated Grindavík, citing the risk of the magma tunnel reaching the town. Despite evacuations, some residents were permitted to return briefly under police escort to retrieve pets and essential items. Additionally, precautionary measures include the closure of the famous Blue Lagoon, a popular geothermal spa north of Grindavík, due to the potential release of toxic fumes, including corrosive sulphur dioxide, which could pose health risks to the local population and tourists depending on wind direction.


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