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Iceland halts air travel following volcanic eruption

March 19, 2021

A volcano in southwest Iceland has erupted — as anticipated following thousands of smaller earthquakes in the area in recent weeks. 

Lava streams are seen during a volcanic eruption in Fagradalsfjall, Reykjanes, Iceland, March 19, 2021 in this still image taken from social media. Icelandic Meteorological Office image.
A no-fly zone was established in the area of the volcanoImage: Icelandic Meteorological Office/REUTERS

A long-dormant volcano in southwest Iceland erupted on Friday some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital Reykjavik, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said.

Local media reported that both inbound and outgoing air traffic had been halted from Keflavik International Airport, the country's largest, servicing the capital. 

The eruption followed thousands of smaller earthquakes in the area in recent weeks, with officials bracing for an eruption as a result. 

'Color code red'

The Meteorological Office reported the fissure caused by the eruption near the Fagradals Mountain was around 500 meters (roughly 1,640 feet) long, declaring "flight color code is red but very little turbulence is seen on seismometers."

A seismograph showed the eruption started at 8:45 p.m. local time. 

The lava appeared to "flow slowly," the Meteorological Office added as they shared an aerial view video of the eruption on Facebook.

Authorities urged people to avoid the eruption site. 

"We ask people to stay calm and not under any circumstances go close to the eruption site or on Reykjanesbraut. First responders need to be able to drive freely to assess the situation. Scientists are working on assessing the eruption," police said. 

Iceland's Minister of Justice Aslaug Arna Sigurbjornsdottir shared an image of the eruption showing a night sky glowing bright red.  

Two flights were inbound to the Keflavik International Airport. 

A Coast Guard helicopter was sent to the scene to investigate the volcanic eruption.

The Icelandic Police Department said it expected volcanic gas pollution to extend as far as the southern coast of the Ölfus municipality, where at least 2,000 people live, almost 50 kilometers away from Reykjavik. 

Authorities added that the pollution might continue through the night, urging people to stay indoors and keep windows shut. 

An expected eruption

Iceland's Southern Peninsula and its Krysuvik volcanic system, a largely uninhabited zone that includes Mount Keilir, had recorded at least 40,000 tremors as hefty as magnitude 5.7 since February 24. 

Experts had said prior to the eruption that they expected a lava-based outpouring, nothing reminiscent of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which generated a massive ash cloud, notoriously disrupting around 900,000 flights across Europe over a period of several weeks.

The region is known to experience effusive eruptions, where lava flows out of the ground, rather than explosive ones, in which ash clouds burst high into the sky. The latter are far more problematic for air travel, with the ash capable of damaging jet engines and affecting visibility.

The Krysuvik volcanic system has been inactive for almost 900 years, according to the Meteorological Office. The southern Reykjanes peninsula last witnessed an eruption 781 years ago.

fb/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters)