Icelandic authorities are advising the public to stay away from an ongoing eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula, mere kilometres from Keflavík International Airport and a short drive from Reykjavík. At a briefing in the capital this afternoon, Icelandic Met Office experts warned that toxic gases could gather in low-lying areas near the eruption and pose a danger to hikers hoping to lay eyes on the flowing lava. Furthermore, the eruption site is a long hike away from the nearest roads and weather conditions are poor.
The eruption began yesterday shortly before 9.00pm, casting a red glare into the sky seen by residents across Southwest Iceland. The eruption is one of the smallest that has been seen in Iceland and is far from inhabited areas. Experts say it likely marks the beginning of a period of increased volcanic activity on Reykjanes.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
The briefing has begun. Víðir Reynisson, Director of the Civil Protection Department says the briefing will review what is occurring on the peninsula and allow for questions from reporters.
Kristín Jónsdóttir of the Icelandic Met Office takes over to discuss the details. A dike was formed during the earthquake swarms over the past few weeks leading up to the eruption. The pressure increased until this small eruption started last night. Experts do not believe there will be many large earthquakes following the eruption, not like the quakes we have experienced in the past few weeks.
Magnús Tumi takes over. An eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula is big news, he says. Some are interpreting it as the start of a new volcanic period. This is noteworthy and we need to be alert. This is one of the smallest eruptions we’ve seen, Magnus Tumi continues. Once we saw it in the daylight, it was a lot smaller than we thought during the night. The lava is 10 metres thick at its thickest. This event is not over and we have to monitor the development carefully.
“I’m sure there are several people who want to go see it,” says Magnús Tumi and underlines that it’s still winter and the eruption is in a mountainous area. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Elín Jónasdóttir of the Met Office takes over. This eruption is similar to the 2014 Holuhraun eruption but on a much smaller scale, she says. The Met Office does not believe the gases threaten residential areas, perhaps people who are sensitive to gases would want to keep their windows closed. She states that the weather in the area is cold and wet and “pretty miserable.”
At first, the gases are visible but as the fumes disperse, we stop seeing the gases. That does NOT mean the gases are not there or that they are not dangerous. Volcanic gases are heavy and gather in low areas and valleys. Everyone who goes to the area needs to have a gas detector.
The situation in the lava flow can change quickly and new fissures can open so everyone in the area has to be extremely careful. The hike is not for the faint of heart, only very experienced mountaineers. Stay at home and make popcorn and watch it on the live feed instead, Víðir recommends.
The panel opens for questions. All parking spots are far from the area, it’s windy and there’s sleet so the department of civil defence strongly advises against trying to hike to the eruption. If the wind turns, that affects toxic gas dispersion. Magnús Tumi adds: If the wind dies down, no one should enter the valley. In a closed valley, it’s a death trap if the wind isn’t there to disperse the gases. It’s exciting, we know that, but it’s dangerous.
People in Þorlákshöfn do not need to take any special precautions due to gases but those who are most sensitive to air quality should monitor loftgaedi.is. Current projections do not show that toxic cases will impact air quality in the Reykjavík capital area or on the South Coast.
The most likely scenario is that the eruption will die down. The eruption could last for days or weeks, we don’t know. This is similar to the eruptions at the start of Kröflueldar.
but there were other factors at play then. A new volcanic activity period could start after this one but we don’t know yet. Considering the situation right now, we can expect this eruption to continue for a few days and there’s always the possibility that more magma comes up or that a new eruption begins, we will just have to wait and see, says Kristín Jónsdóttir, Earthquake Hazards Co-ordinator.
If we look at the latest eruptions on the peninsula, which occurred in the 13th century and created the lava field around the Blue Lagoon, there were three eruptions in 15 years. In other periods, there were longer breaks between eruptions or even none at all. There were also breaks as long as 100 years. For perspective: during active volcanic periods, the Reykjanes peninsula produces just about half or even one third of the lava produced by the volcano Hekla. These aren’t large eruptions on Iceland’s geological scale. We don’t know what will happen in ten years but we have a rough idea of how this particular eruption might play out. We aren’t worried about imminent catastrophes, we’ll just remain alert.
This is a small eruption but there was one recent eruption that was smaller: a four-hour-long eruption at the start of the Holuhraun eruption, August 29, 2014. The eruption is in a good spot [not affecting inhabited areas or infrastructure]. It’s not over but there’s not much power in it at this point.
“Have you started the process of choosing a name for the new lava field?” We’ll let the people of Grindavík decide. Drone flight above the area is forbidden, scientists need to be able to fly over the area at short notice and private pilots have limited access.
This is Víðir’s last meeting before a much-deserved vacation. [It was supposed to start yesterday right before the eruption began.] Asked when he will go on vacation, he replies “In eight minutes.” Víðir closes the briefing with a reminder to the public: “We know this is exciting but please be careful.” There’s limited phone reception in the area, hikers could get caught in the dark as it’s a long hike and there is of course danger from the eruption. The briefing has ended.