Minister Urges Infrastructure Improvements ASAP: ‘We need to take this seriously’

Infrastructure on the Reykjanes peninsula needs to undergo significant reinforcement and expansion as soon as possible in order to preclude major disruptions during a potential volcanic eruption, RÚV reports. Jón Gunnarsson, Iceland’s Minister of Justice, who also oversees Civil Defense issues, says that existing construction regulations, such as conducting environmental assessments and accepting bids from a range of contractors, may need to be circumvented to ensure that infrastructural improvements can be made in a timely fashion.

The Reykjanes Peninsula continues to be rocked by earthquakes. Last week, the Icelandic Met Office reported that 14 earthquakes measuring M3.0 or larger were detected. Most of these occurred on the peninsula, which is experiencing earthquake swarms due to uplift at Svartsengi power plant and Mt. Þorbjörn. This uplift has been confirmed by both GPS sensors and satellite imagery. The largest earthquake on Reykjanes at time of writing was M3.5, on May 18. Another earthquake measuring M3.2 took place north of Mt. Þorbjörn on Sunday. According to the Met Office, the seismic unrest on the peninsula increases the likeliness of a large earthquake (M6.0 – M6.5) earthquake in the Brennisteinsfjöll mountains. There is also risk of landslides due to strong earthquakes close to the Eldvörp crater row.

Hot water and electricity serving 30,000 people at risk

Civil Defense representatives attended a meeting of the council of ministers on Friday and reviewed various eruption scenarios. Of particular concern is the infrastructure on Reykjanes that manages the production of hot and cold water, as well as electricity, for 30,000 people.

Land around Þorbjörn has risen four centimetres since the end of April, and it’s clear that the Svartsengi power plant, the peninsula’s primary energy producer, could be in danger if there is an eruption in the area. As such, Jón believes it’s important to have alternative sources of water ready for residents in the area. “We need to look for new water sources and build a new heat exchange system somewhere else, so that we’re sure we can supply enough hot water. And in my opinion, we need to speed up construction of Suðurneslína 2.” (Suðurneslína 2 is a long-debated powerline that would run from around Grindavík to the outskirts of Hafnarfjörður.)

A cost assessment has not yet been conducted for Jón’s proposed infrastructural reinforcements, but he says the investment is a worthy one regardless. “It will be much cheaper for us to try and intervene now, as quickly as we can; it’s still going to take time.”

Construction projects such as these usually have to proceed according to a set of standing regulations, namely the acceptance of multiple project bids and the conducting of an environmental assessment. “I think we’ve been trying to get [Suðurneslína 2] going for at least ten years,” remarked Jón. “I think we’ve got to intervene here—this is an urgent matter and it’s important to protect the well before we’re hit by disasters. We may need to push such regulations aside and prioritize the construction of additional infrastructure and wellsprings that we can then integrate into our utility systems if something were to happen at Svartsengi to hinder its operations.”

‘The faster we work, the better’

After the eruption at Fagradalsfjall, experts at the University of Iceland, the Met Office, and engineering firm Efla were commissioned to assess the infrastructure on Reykjanes and propose measures to protect it from lava flow near Grindavík and Svartsengi. The final report is not yet ready but will include probable origin points and lava flow measurements.

RÚV obtained an overview of the pending report, the main conclusion of which is said to be that new infrastructure, utilities systems, and transportation systems are needed in the area. This conclusion is underpinned by the knowledge that if an eruption was to start in the specified areas, there would be very little time to enact protection measures, as there are many possible eruption sites that are very close to important existing infrastructure.

“The faster we try to work and make decisions about this, the better,” concluded Jón. “I think we need to set this in motion as quickly as we possibly can—this is a reminder to us about what’s happening out there, and we need to take this seriously.”

Iceland Likely to Procure Monkeypox Vaccine, Deems General Inoculation Unnecessary

Iceland will likely participate in the European Union’s joint scheme to purchase and procure doses of Imvanex to use in cases of monkeypox infection, RÚV reports. At time of writing, no cases of monkeypox have been diagnosed in Iceland. After exploring its procurement options, the Ministry of Health says it monkeypox vaccinations would be administered to people who have been exposed to the virus and perhaps other select groups, but says that general vaccination against the virus is unnecessary.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, “there is a multi-country outbreak of monkeypox affecting the UK, EU/EEA states, and North America. This is the first time that chains of transmission are reported in Europe without known epidemiological links to West or Central Africa.” As perhaps obvious from the name, monkeypox was first found in monkeys and is spread through close contact, although it is not typically spread easily amongst humans.

The current outbreak (roughly 200 cases globally) extends to 20 countries in which monkeypox is not endemic, and is causing concern because the virus rarely spreads outside of West and Central Africa. Its symptoms include fever, headache, chills, exhaustion, asthenia, lymph node swelling, back pain and muscle aches.

Luckily, existing smallpox vaccinations are effective against monkeypox. Danish biotech company Bavarian Nordic is one of the few in the world to have approval for its smallpox vaccine, known as Imvanex in Europe and Jynneos in the United States. Iceland would receive a proportional allocation of the vaccine that the EU purchases for countries participating in the scheme, just like it did with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Baby Boom in North Iceland

baby swimming

Almost 500 babies were born in the Akureyri Hospital in North Iceland last year. RÚV reports that this is an increase of nearly 26% from the year before. The announcement was made at the hospital’s annual meeting this week. There was a general increase in patient numbers: Akureyri Hospital treated 13,500 patients in 2021, up 22% from the year before.

In 2021, there were precisely 491 babies born in 488 births (three sets of twins) at Akureyri Hospital. In 2020, by contrast, there were 397 babies born in 392 births (that year, five sets of twins). This makes 2021 Akureyri’s second-most fruitful year on the books; the current record for most babies born in Iceland’s ‘capital of the north’ in one year is 515 babies in 2010.

Births were up in the actual capital as well, but not nearly as much. In 2021, 3,466 babies were born at Reykjavík’s National and University Hospital, which is just 5% over the previous year’s rate.

Akureyri Hospital CEO Hildigunnur Svavarsdóttir says the reason for the jump in birth numbers is difficult to determine with any certainty, although she readily concedes to the winking supposition that “people got bored during COVID.”

“That’s one explanation for sure, and a lot of people are giving each other knowing smiles,” she remarked. “But I have no explanation for it—I just think it’s a really joyous thing. We could do with more of us up here.”