Iceland volcano alert: the facts so far

27.01.2020 - 09:42
Mynd með færslu
 Mynd: Hilmar Bragi Bárðarson
Iceland’s civil protection authorities yesterday implemented an ‘uncertainty alert’ over the status of volcanic actity near Þorbjörn hill, between Grindavík and the Blue Lagoon, on the Reykjanes peninsula. The alert does not mean an eruption is taking place, and it does not mean that an eruption will take place. The warning means that changes are occurring that indicate a possible accumulation of magma in the area.

If an eruption does start there in the future, it would not involve the sort of ash cloud that disrupts international aviation.

The Icelandic Met Office has also issued a yellow alert for aviation, which means that airlines and air traffic control should follow the situation closely. It has no impact on flight schedules and planes are running on time, as this week’s weather forecast is calm. 

The volcano uncertainty alert has been issued in the wake of an earthquake swarm (which are common in the area), accompanied by three to four millimetres of land rise per day (which is unusual). The land rise could be a direct result of the earthquakes, but it is likely caused by lava accumulation several kilometres below the surface. 

It is possible the magma accumulation will stop suddenly. It could also continue and even increase, without causing an eruption. The magma accumulation could cause a fissure incursion that releases the pressure without breaking the surface. It could cause an incursion that does break the surface and becomes a lava eruption. The magma accumulation could lead to more and larger earthquakes in the area. 

Asked about how serious the volcano warning is, head of civil protection at the State police, Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, said there would probably be no warning if this activity were taking place another part of the country. “We always have to approach it from a worst case scenario,” he said—adding that despite the uncertainty alert, the civil protection coordination centre has not been opened.

The Reykjanes peninsula is largely made up of lava fields and is a conspicuously volcanic landscape. The last eruption on the peninsula was in the 13th century. Unlike some of Iceland’s large volcanoes, which often sit underneath glaciers, an eruption on Reykanes would be a lava eruption without an ash cloud. 

There is a town meeting in Grindavík at 16.00 today where local residents can find out everything they need to know about the uncertainty alert. 

Fannar Jónasson, mayor of Grindavík, said it is likely the alert will be cancelled again soon. If it remains in force, however, his town and the civil protection authorities must have a good evacuation plan in place, just to be safe. He says the Met Office is boosting the number of scientists it has on shift and is installing more measuring equipment in the area. 

The situation has not changed since yesterday and the earthquakes continue as before. The largest shake overnight was of magnitude 2.1. 

All towns, amenities, and attractions on the Reykjanes peninsula are open as usual. 

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Alexander Elliott
Project manager
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