Yes, thanks for asking, we’re fine! In fact, everyone’s a little excited about it. The eruption is what’s locally (and flippantly) known as a tourist eruption. It’s far enough from inhabited areas that it doesn’t pose a threat but close enough that it can easily be visited. The spectacle of red hot sputtering and flowing lava attracts plenty of spectators and during the right weather conditions, it can even be seen from Reykjavík.
Earthquakes and Tremors
The eruption started on Friday night, March 19 but it had been building up to something for a while. Fifteen months earlier, residents of Grindavík, a small fishing town on the southwest side of the Reykjanes Peninsula were shaken (quite literally) by a swarm of earthquakes, followed by news that land was rising by Mt. Þorbjörn. The land would not be rising unless there was something big pushing it and geologists confirmed that magma was gathering underneath the surface. That time, the magma cooled and hardened underneath the surface, but it was not long (in geological terms) before the earthquakes started up again.
On February 24, an earthquake of magnitude 5.7 shook the Reykjanes peninsula and was clearly felt in the capital area, where two-thirds of the nation live. The peninsula kept on shaking, with thousands of earthquakes, some small, others large enough to wake people from their sleep and cause nausea. Usually, when there is an earthquake, we expect to see a tired-looking scientist immediately on the news stating that this is likely a release of pent-up tension in the ground and that there’s no volcanic tremor. That’s why, when we saw the scientist on the news stating that a tremor was detected, everyone got excited. The tremor confirmed that magma was on the move underneath the area where the earthquakes originated but it was yet to be seen if there was enough of it and if it was powerful enough to breach the surface.
A Red Glow
The whole nation was waiting with bated breath and still getting used to the chandeliers wobbling a few times a day. Experts were preparing for four different scenarios. For a while, it looked like the least exciting one would be the one to pan out – that the earthquakes would release all the pent-up tension in the ground and subside while the magma cooled and hardened underneath the surface, only resulting in a slight bump in altitude for Mt. Fagradalsfjall. Then – late on a Friday night – an ominous red glare appeared in the sky above Grindavík. The Met Office’s seismographs were relatively calm and earlier that night, on the national radio’s evening news, a geologist had discussed his belief that the seismic activity would die down uneventfully. Moments later, satellite images confirmed that an eruption had begun.
Before it started, geologists had mapped out where they believed the magma dike was forming, based on the origin locations of the earthquakes. Stretching from Keilir in the northeast to Nátthagi just south of Fagradalsfjall mountain, their most likely bet was that the eruption would start in Nátthagi. In the end, it was a little north of Nátthagi, in Geldingadalur valley by Fagradalsfjall mountain.
As soon as the eruption started, the authorities’ first step was to try to dissuade the people of Iceland from heading to their cars and driving off to see the eruption. Even though Iceland on average has an eruption every 4-5 years, it’s still big news and an amazing sight to see. Roads in the area were closed but neither that nor the threat of toxic gases and unpredictable lava streams deterred several hikers from going to see the eruption over the weekend. There was a proposal by the eruption site, and a foodie even made the news when his pan of bacon and eggs was swallowed by the slow-moving lava.
No marked hiking paths lead to the area and parking is a hassle. Weather conditions over the weekend were unfavourable and got worse as the Sunday wore on. Despite authorities warning travellers to stay at home, the allure of a natural wonder such as an eruption was great, and several people needed the help of search-and-rescue volunteers during that night. Ill-prepared hikers were getting lost and approaching hypothermia on their way back. There were some minor injuries and dozens of people visited an impromptu emergency response centre in Grindavík but luckily, there were no serious injuries or fatalities.
Red-hot lava is flowing from the ground, streaming and sputtering up into the air, creating craters of cooling rock, which are liable to break from the force of the lava streaming through them. While the lava flows relatively slowly, it’s unpredictable: pools of lava can form and suddenly take new directions at any given time. There’s also always a chance that a new fissure opens up over the magma dike, something that could take spectators by surprise. In addition to these obvious threats, there’s also the subtle threat of toxic gasses released by the eruption. Colour- and odourless, these gasses are heavy and can gather in depressions and hollows around the eruption site. Carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide are some of the most dangerous ones but there are numerous different gasses, some of which will poison you, others which will deprive you of oxygen until you lose consciousness and can’t get away. The wind disperses these gasses pretty easily but if the wind dies down, the situation can quickly become life-threatening. Even bending down to retie shoelaces could be enough to lose consciousness.
What happens next?
While the authorities were sometimes exasperated at people endangering themselves in spite of clear instructions, they are also sympathetic to the fact that eruptions are pretty cool and people want to see the one that’s happening right now, only 20 minutes away from the capital area, where two-thirds of the nation live. Search-and-rescue volunteers have now marked a new shorter hiking path to the eruption site and the Icelandic Met Office has set up a new weather station allowing them to monitor weather and air quality conditions at the eruption site in real-time.
We don’t know how long the eruption is going to last. It looks impressive but on the scale of Iceland’s geology, it’s actually a small one. At first, its small size meant that geologists believed it would be over relatively quickly, perhaps mere hours or days after it began. Since then, the flow of lava has remained steady and geologists with the University of Iceland have speculated that there are some indications that the eruption might last for a while. Nothing is certain at this point but experts continue to monitor the eruption and as new data comes to light, they will be updating their prediction for the future of the eruption. Based on the current lava flow, it will take the eruption 8-18 days to fill up the valley where it’s currently located.
This article will be updated.