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Iceland: Volcano erupts after weeks of buildup

December 19, 2023

A volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwest Iceland erupted late on Monday night, following weeks of intense earthquake activity. Webcam footage captured the moment of eruption, which the country had awaited.

A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts in Grindavik, Iceland, December 18, 2023
Iceland sits above a volcanic hot spot and averages an eruption every four to five yearsImage: Civil Protection of Iceland/REUTERS

A volcano erupted on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland, south of the capital Reykjavik, on Monday, after weeks of seismic activity.

The eruption began around 10:17 p.m. local time (22:17 GMT) following a series of small earthquakes at around 9 p.m., Iceland's Meteorological Office (IMO) reported.

"We hope for the best but it is clear this is a considerable eruption," Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir wrote on Facebook. Later, the Icelandic government said "the eruption does not present a threat to life."

The country had been expecting an eruption and declared an emergency in mid-November

What is the current state of the Iceland volcano eruption?

"The magma flow seems to be at least a hundred cubic meters per second, maybe more. So this would be considered a big eruption in this area at least," Vidir Reynisson, head of Iceland's Civil Protection and Emergency Management told the Icelandic public broadcaster, RUV.

He also urged people to stay away from the area, warning that "this is no tourist eruption."

Grainy webcam footage captured the moment. A flash, illuminating orange molten rock and lava erupting into the night sky.

The eruption occurred just three kilometers (1.8 miles) from the fishing town of Grindavik and 20 kilometers from Reykjavik International Airport.

"We now wait to see what the forces of nature have in store," President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson wrote on X, formerly Twitter. He added protecting lives and infrastructure was a priority.

Authorities cautiously watching Reykjanes

Fearing volcanic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula, authorities last month evacuated the 3,400 inhabitants of Grindavik and closed the nearby Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, one of Iceland's most popular resorts.

Iceland sits above a volcanic hot spot in the North Atlantic and averages an eruption every four to five years. Indeed, volcanic eruptions are not uncommon in Iceland, which is home to 33 active volcano systems, the highest number in Europe.

The most disruptive in recent times was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which spewed huge clouds of ash into the atmosphere and grounded flights across Europe for days because of fears ash could damage airplane engines.

Scientists say a new eruption would likely produce lava but not an ash cloud.

Reykjavik's international airport remains open for now, despite the drama unfolding on the other tip of the peninsula. 

"At the moment, there are no disruptions to arrivals or departures at Keflavík Airport," it said on its website, although travelers due to leave from or arrive at Reykjavik on Tuesday are advised to check the status of their flight.

In March 2021, lava fountains erupted spectacularly from a 500 to 750-metre-long fissure in the ground in the Fagradalsfjall volcanic system.

Two other eruptions from the same system occurred in August 2022 and July 2023.

lo,mds/ab (AFP, Reuters)