Volcanic activity on the Reykjanes Peninsula is increasing. Residents are concerned.
More than 10,000 earthquakes were recorded in Iceland in a week as the ground began to heave. According to experts, this indicates an intensification of volcanic activity. “There are signs that we are entering a new era in Iceland, an era that has not been experienced for 800 years. We are on the cusp of something new, and we don’t yet know how it will go affect life in the long term,” said Eemu Ranta, doctor of geology at the University of Helsinki.
Last week’s earthquakes occurred mainly on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where around 30 volcanoes are located. Most of the earthquakes were minor, but three exceeded magnitude 4. In addition, an area of the Reykjanes Peninsula began to rise at an unusually rapid rate. According to the Icelandic Meteorological Institute, the ground level rose by 5 to 6 centimeters in 12 days.
The Reykjanes Peninsula has seen the first volcanic eruptions in almost 800 years over the past three years. The first took place in 2021 on the Fagradalsfjall volcano. An eruption also took place at the same location last year and a third this summer. “All of them occurred near the area where the ground now rises,” Ranta says. “It is typical for a quiet period to last about 800 to 1,000 years. But when eruptive activity begins, it is followed by a more active period that can last up to 400 years.” This does not mean that volcanic eruptions are constant. There can be eruptions every 5 to 20 years, adds Ranta.
In 2010, a volcanic eruption in Iceland completely disrupted international air traffic. Below the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, a volcanic eruption began in March and continued until October. In April 2010, the volcano threw ash about 8.5 kilometers above sea level for several days. A huge ash cloud formed, which led to the closure of airspace in Finland and several other European countries, and tens of thousands of flights were canceled. The ash cloud posed a threat to aviation safety, as ash can stop or even destroy aircraft engines. Additionally, it reduces visibility and may pose a health risk when it enters the breathing air.
The Reykjanes Peninsula is next to the airport. Precisely from this region, where the ground rises, it is only 15 kilometers to the airport. Is there now a similar risk of aerial chaos? In general, eruptions on this peninsula are almost never explosive. Volcanoes in the region do not erupt in a way that throws ash directly into high altitudes. On the Reykjanes Peninsula, during volcanic eruptions, lava flows to the surface and gases are formed. This is not as detrimental to air traffic, even if the airport is close. In Iceland, it is possible to follow the movements of the magma quite precisely. However, magma movements below the surface are more frequent than eruptions, so it is impossible to say whether this fall’s episode will lead to an eruption or not.
In Iceland, there is also some concern in Reykjavik, the capital, which is quite close to the peninsula. The eruptions of the last three years have even been visible as far away as the capital. The greatest danger usually comes from gases released by volcanic eruptions, particularly sulfur dioxide. The amount of gas can be so great that it affects people with respiratory illnesses.
Also on the Reykjanes Peninsula are some of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions, such as the Blue Lagoon and the Svartsengi geothermal power station. So, is it safe to travel to Iceland now? At this point, there is no reason to postpone the trip. If the volcano erupts, then it is advisable to follow the recommendations of the local meteorological office. The biggest risk with the Reykjanes volcano eruptions is that it is easy to travel near the volcanoes, for example from the airport. Tourists unaware of the risks can get injured near an active volcano. The risk is that people get too close and something happens…