Iceland may not experience a volcanic eruption
- A spike in seismic activity near a small town in Iceland has raised fears of a volcanic eruption.
- A volcano expert in Iceland says the greatest chance of an eruption may have passed.
- The town of Grindavik was evacuated last week.
The volatile volcanic situation around a small town in Iceland appeared to be moving in the right direction Monday, as seismic activity became less intense. But the frequency of small earthquakes has prompted the government to urge people to remain vigilant.
Iceland’s Meteorological Office said about 900 earthquakes had been recorded in the area by late afternoon local time. Satellite radar showed a crack-like formation cutting through part of the town of Grindavik, which was evacuated on Friday.
Hundreds of earthquakes have shaken this part of the Reykjanes Peninsula every day for two weeks. An Icelandic volcanologist believes the biggest threat of a volcanic eruption may be over for now, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re just getting started.
(More: Volcanic threat closes Blue Lagoon Resort in Iceland)
Our Iceland-based expert, meteorologist Orillon Sidney, spoke with Arman Hosköldsson, a volcanologist and research professor at the University of Iceland, about why there hasn’t been an eruption, why this isn’t your typical volcano, and whether Iceland is safe for tourists now.
Orillon Sydney: My understanding is that there is an infiltration of magma trying to work its way to the surface. Do we have any idea how close he is at this point? Do we have any idea of a time frame now?
Armand Hoskoldson: Nothing is set in stone, but the current estimate is that the magma lies about a kilometer below the surface. It also means that basically, in the case of last Friday when the big rift actually came out, it immediately filled with magma, but there wasn’t enough magma to come up to the surface.
So, in fact, this crisis we are experiencing now may end without an explosion. In fact, every day since Friday that we don’t see an eruption, the probability decreases. The probability was maximum on Friday evening and Saturday.
But we know that this is not the end of the matter. Because normally in this area, when we release the tension and split the shell, it will take about 10 to 15 years in this particular area. Then it will move to the next place just 30-40 kilometers away on the peninsula.
So we have these four to five areas that should relieve stress. And this will take — as we know in geological history, it takes about 300 years for the entire peninsula to relax.
But parts of the peninsula are active at this time. And now we have the western part which, in a way, is among the worst parts because we have very important infrastructure there.
Near the Blue Lagoon, we have a geothermal power plant that supplies the entire western part of the peninsula with hot water to heat your home, as we head into winter. So it is a very serious crisis… The people directly threatened by losing hot water to heat their homes number about 30,000 people.
Sydney: I think people often think of a volcanic eruption as this big mountain blowing the top off. But in this particular case, we’re talking about a different kind of geology.
Hoskoldson: Absolutely. Completely different.
Iceland is a huge island, with an area of about 100 thousand square kilometers. And across it the borders of the painting run. If you think of a volcano, you think of a high mountain. But Iceland is not like that, it is relatively flat and the plate boundary that runs across Iceland, which is about 700 kilometers long – along the plate boundaries, we can see volcanic eruptions. Here the Earth’s crust is divided, because we cannot create endless holes in the Earth.
So, when the crust separates from the two separate large plates, we have to put something in instead. This is the magma that fills the cracks.
In Iceland, we have a lot of magma production. So we have more volcanic eruptions in Iceland and that’s why Iceland was built out of the sea. Otherwise Iceland would be at sea like other oceanic ridges.
SydneyAre volcanic gases another danger? Besides the fact that lava would fill the city, are we talking about a lot of volatile gases coming out and affecting wildlife, affecting plants? There are a lot of effects from volcanoes, but I think gases are one of the things people tend to forget.
Hoskoldson: Yes absolutely. This is of course a threat. But the advantage in this case is that most explosions are relatively small. Because the amount of gases released by the eruption is related to the amount of magma it produces. Therefore, volumetric, how much magma, and in this region, eruptions are usually rather small.
We have areas in the highlands where we have these huge eruptions that can even affect the entire Northern Hemisphere, like the Laki eruption in 1783.
So we are not too worried about gases. However, it is a concern for people who are highly sensitive to gases such as sulfur. But Iceland is a windy land. So we hope you head out to sea.
Sydney: If someone had a ticket next week to come to Iceland – they want to go to Reykjavik, they want to look at some of the interior – what would you tell them? Is it okay to come to Iceland now, as long as you are away from Grindavik and that area?
Hoskoldson: Yes, I would say it is completely safe.
If you stay away from Grindavik and the Blue Lagoon for now, you’re perfectly safe. If you go to Reykjavik or to the southern part of the island, this will not be affected at all. This crisis is very localized in fact, centered mainly around the power plant, Blue Lagoon and Grindavik.
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