Iceland has been preparing itself for a possible volcanic eruption after thousands of small earthquakes rocked the island nation in the North Atlantic.
Seismic activity fissured roads, shut down tourist attractions and led the government to evacuate a town in the potential path of an eruption during the early weeks of November., However, government authorities officially downgraded the emergency level in the town on Nov. 23.
Iceland averages a volcanic eruption every five years, the government previously noted. The country’s tourism board has 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 on Nov. 10.
“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.
What has been 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.
In the days leading up to Nov. 20, the Met Office reported approximately 1,500 to 1,800 small earthquakes every day. The number of recorded earthquakes dropped after Nov. 20 to upwards of 200 a day, with roughly 250 recorded from midnight to 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 23. The office said on Nov. 23 that strong winds and rough seas close to Grindavík affected the sensitivity of its seismometers, but added it can still be assumed that earthquake activity is decreasing despite the reduced sensitivity.
“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 warned on Nov. 15, 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. Civil protection authorities said even if the volcano doesn’t erupt, it could be months before residents can return home.
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. A nonprofit organization that developed an app to find lost pets said it rescued 49 cats, four hamsters, 90 pigeons, sheep, frogs and parrots, along with three kittens and a rabbit, from Grindavík.
However, since the initial evacuation, police downgraded the level of public protection in the town from an emergency to the danger level as of 11 a.m. local time on Nov. 23, civil protection authorities said.
Authorities said on Nov. 22 that the probability of a sudden eruption within the town’s limits “has been decreasing every day and are today considered small.” The land was still rising in Svartsengi, north of Grindavík and closer to the world-famous Blue Lagoon, and the magma could flow from there under the town, authorities said. There is still a possibility of a volcanic eruption in the area above the magma tunnel, most likely between Hagafell and S´ylingarfell, the government said.
Town residents as of Nov. 23 were being allowed in to retrieve valuables for five hours a day.
Has there been 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 has noted. The airport is only about 18 miles (31 km) from the evacuated town.
Iceland’s tourism website maintains its position that 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.
How can we help people impacted by the situation in Iceland?
The Icelandic Red Cross launched an emergency fundraising campaign in response to the events in Grindavík. The Lava Centre, an educational interactive volcano exhibition in the South of Iceland, has been sharing information on social media about seismic activity, evacuations and pet rescue efforts.
Ægir Þór Eysteinsson, a spokesperson for the Icelandic Red Cross commented on the community pulling together in the aftermath of the initial earthquakes. Soon after the evacuation in Grindavík, many Icelanders offered evacuees housing, Eysteinsson said in an email to TIME.
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