“The whole nation is watching the eruption with us” Skip to content
Tourists catch a selfie with the flowing lava in Geldingadalur on the Reykjanes peninsula while a search-and-rescue volunteer monitors the area
Photo: Photo: Golli. Tourists catch a selfie with the flowing lava in Geldingadalur on the Reykjanes peninsula while a search-and-rescue volunteer monitors the area.

“The whole nation is watching the eruption with us”

On March 19, looking forward to her weekend off, Natural Hazard Specialist Elísabet Pálmadóttir had checked into a hotel and was tucking into a romantic dinner with her fiancé. Then she got the news: an eruption had begun on the Reykjanes peninsula.

“I had worked the previous six days, long shifts, and was really tired. Me and my fiancé were going to have a romantic weekend away. It ended with meetings all night long,” Elísabet laughs.

The eruption, located just 30km from Iceland’s capital Reykjavík, had been preceded by three weeks of strong earthquakes, felt across the capital area as well as South and West Iceland. During those weeks, Elísabet and her co-workers at the Icelandic Met Office worked overtime, monitoring the quakes for any sign that magma was about to breach the surface. “There are 12 natural hazard specialists that cover the shifts so we split them between us. There was a lot to do, a lot of meetings, a lot of media attention.”

Relief When Eruption Began

In early March, experts saw that magma was close to the surface on Reykjanes and knew that an eruption could occur. Yet there was not much warning right before lava started flowing above ground. “One of my colleagues noticed low-frequency earthquakes the day before the eruption. That was pretty much the only clue that an eruption was about to start.” The clearest sign was not data picked up by equipment, but a bright red glow in the sky, noticed by the residents of nearby Grindavík.

For the residents of Iceland, the eruption was more a cause for relief than alarm. “As soon as the eruption began the earthquakes calmed down. We saw that it was in Geldingadalur valley, pretty much in the best place you could choose: not threatening any inhabited areas, not emitting much pollution – it didn’t even stop air traffic!” At the Met Office, the staff could also breathe more easily once the earthquakes died down.

On Reykjavík’s Doorstep

The ongoing eruption is small by geological standards, but one factor makes it stand out: its location. The erupting fissure is located just 30km from Iceland’s capital area, where two-thirds of the country’s inhabitants live. Most of Iceland’s eruptions happen in far less accessible areas such as the Highland. A few kilometres’ hike from the nearest road, thousands have already visited the Geldingadalur eruption and the stream of guests continues as steadily as the lava flow.

“It’s so fun that everyone can experience it,” Elísabet says. “With the [2014] Holuhraun eruption we were sort of the only ones that got to go, and so many wanted to see it. But now everyone can just go on a Sunday hike to see it. Icelanders are amateur geologists, there is a lot of geology knowledge here and it’s really fun to see how everyone is so interested and really excited to learn more. It makes the job even more fun, that the whole nation is in it with us.”

Group Science Project

The fact that the eruption is so accessible means that there are that many more eyes on it, creating a huge stream of data that can be useful to experts. “We’re also using information from the public, like pictures. If I see some changes in the data then I can go on Instagram and see the newest pictures and compare them: it’s amazing. There is so much monitoring that we catch everything that happens.”

The Met Office has also had the help of countless institutions in Iceland and abroad in monitoring the eruption, modelling lava flow, analysing the data, and of course keeping visitors safe. “Everyone pretty much dropped what they were doing to take part in this project: the University of Iceland, energy companies, the Search and Rescue teams, the Civil Protection Department. Now everyone’s on the same team working together. It’s really cool to see how well that’s going.”

Experts from the University of Iceland analysed lava from the eruption and discovered it was not just coming from a magma chamber near the surface but straight from the earth’s mantle. “We have never seen that. I think it’s been 7,000-8,000 years since that’s happened. So I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from this eruption,” Elísabet says. “I think with every eruption you add more knowledge and get a clearer picture of what’s happening beneath the surface.”

Natural Hazard Specialist Elísabet Pálmadóttir
Natural Hazard Specialist Elísabet Pálmadóttir at the Geldingadalur eruption, March 2021.

Bringing the Nation Together

According to Elísabet, there are “strong indications” the eruption could last for a long time. She’s happy that it’s given the nation something it can experience together, when a pandemic is mostly keeping it apart. “It is outdoors, and it is possible to keep a two-metre distance and bring hand sanitiser and be careful.” Elísabet hopes that Civil Protection crews keep the site open to visitors. In these difficult times, “We really need it.”

Elísabet hopes the eruption lasts a long time, providing more data and an incredible experience of mother nature to the nation. “It’s a really exciting time to be a geologist in Iceland.”

 

Readers can follow Elísabet on Instagram for more on the ongoing eruption.

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