Iceland is preparing for a possible volcanic eruption after hundreds of small earthquakes have rocked the island nation in the North Atlantic. Seismic activity has fissured roads, shut down tourist attractions and led the government to evacuate a town in the potential path of an eruption.
Iceland averages a volcanic eruption every five years, the government said. The country’s tourism board attempted to assuage fears by pointing out that although three eruptions have occurred in the past three years on the same peninsula where activity is currently being monitored, people were unharmed and travel remained undisrupted.
Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management took a more serious note. “It is clear that we are dealing with events that we Icelanders have not experienced before, at least not since the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar,” the government said, referencing a 1973 eruption which lasted six months, forced the evacuation of an island and destroyed several hundred homes. “We got through it together, we’ll get through it together and we won't give up.
A more recent Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010 sent clouds of ash into the atmosphere and crippled air travel across Europe off and on for a month.
Here’s what we know about the unfolding situation in Iceland.
What’s happening in Iceland?
Seismic activity near Grindavík, which is about 31 miles (50 km) southwest of the capital Reykjavik, began around Oct. 25, but took a sudden worrying turn on Nov. 10, raising the risk of a volcanic eruption, according to the Icelandic Met Office.
The office has warned of a “significant likelihood of a volcanic eruption in the coming days.” On Nov. 16, meteorologists tracked more than 400 earthquakes near a nine mile (15 km) long magma intrusion at most half a mile (800 m) underground, the office said.
“The likelihood of a volcanic eruption is high and an eruption could be possible on a timescale of just days,” the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue’s website SafeTravel warns, explaining that the eruption is likely to occur on land just outside Grindavík, with chance of an undersea explosion as well.
What is the risk for people in Iceland?
The government declared a state of emergency and evacuated Grindavík, a fishing village with a population of 3,400, on Nov. 11 after determining that magma extended beneath the surface of the town, the Associated Press reported.
Earthquakes opened up deep cracks in the roadways west of Grindavík on Nov. 13, closing the streets and making travel impossible for the foreseeable future, according to the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration.
The government began work on Nov. 14 to build defense walls around a geothermal plant, a main source of power for the country, near Grindavík to protect it from lava flow. On Nov. 15, electricity went out in a significant part of Grindavík, with workers efforting to bring the power back before any eruption.
Police granted specific permission to some residents of Grindavík to briefly re-enter the town, with rescue vehicle escorts, to retrieve their valuables on Nov. 16.
Will this have an impact on travel?
In recent years, Iceland has become a more popular tourist destination and growing transit hub for flights from North America to Europe. In 2010, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed clouds of ash into the atmosphere and caused a month of travel disruption with flights being grounded and re-routed.
The volcano currently under watch had not erupted at the time of publication, so there are no current impacts to flight operations at Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik. All roads to the airport are open, the government said. The airport is only about 18 miles (31 km) from the evacuated town.
Iceland’s tourism website said it’s impossible to conclude whether flight travel will be impacted if the volcano erupts, but added that “while the possibility of air traffic disturbance cannot be entirely ruled out, scientists consider it an unlikely scenario.”
“The potential disruption to flight traffic would depend on factors such as the location and size of the eruption. Typically, the impact of volcanic eruptions is confined to specific, localized areas,” the agency said.
The agency pointed out that three eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where the currently active volcano is located, in the past three years didn’t impact flight travel.
The U.K. and U.S. governments have warned citizens and tourists about traveling to Iceland at this time. The country’s popular Blue Lagoon tourist attraction closed last week as earthquakes rattled the area.
How can we help people impacted by the situation in Iceland?
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it was caring for hundreds of evacuees in shelters as of Nov. 14. The organization’s local branch, the Icelandic Red Cross, has launched an emergency fundraising campaign to support their efforts.
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