Deep North Episode 64: Wall of Fire

Reykjanes peninsula eruptions

On Sunday morning, January 14, around 4:30 AM, Ari Guðmundsson’s phone rang. The Reykjanes peninsula was trembling. Three and a half hours later, it rang again. This time it was Víðir Reynisson, the head of Iceland’s Civil Protection Department. A fissure had opened and an eruption had begun.

The long, earthen lava barriers – of which Ari had led the design and rapid construction, which were meant to protect the evacuated town of Grindavík, and which were still incomplete – were about to go through trial by fire.

Read the story here.

Lava Flow Eases Near Grindavík, Southern Fissure Halts

Grindavík

The southern fissure near Grindavik has ceased erupting, with lava mainly flowing from the northern fissure as it stands; protective barriers are proving effective. Key response teams are meeting to address the situation in Grindavik this morning.

660 earthquakes

The flow of lava from the volcanic eruption near Grindavík along the protective barrier, erected north of the town, has decreased. As it stands, the lava seems to be mainly issuing from two to four vents on the northern fissure, the one that opened just before 8 AM yesterday, RÚV reports

The southern fissure, which opened near the northernmost houses in Grindavik at noon yesterday, seems to have stopped erupting; its intensity decreased late last night, and it appears to have solidified overnight. With the dawn breaking, the situation in Grindavik is expected to become clearer in the coming hours.

As noted by Vísir, there have been approximately 660 earthquakes on the Reykjanes peninsula since midnight. The largest was of magnitude 1.8. Most of the earthquakes have been registered around Mt. Hagafell, although a few have also been detected near the magma dyke below Grindavík.

Protective barriers proved their worth

Engineer Ari Guðmundsson told RÚV this morning that the barrier north of Grindavik was about halfway completed, i.e. half its height, when the eruption began yesterday morning.

“We had the opportunity to make some relatively short barriers in 2021 and saw their effectiveness. We are building on that. Yesterday’s eruption demonstrated their worth, with regard to construction and height. But this is, of course, always dependent on where the lava emerges and the like. That matters a lot, too,” Ari observed.

Yesterday, last night, and this morning, work has been done to raise parts of Nesvegur road on the north side of Grindavík, and the area in its vicinity, so that it could serve as a barrier. This is done in case the lava flow extends further south. Ari told RÚV that an emphasis was being placed on ensuring the safety of those working on the project.

Authorities meet

Speaking to Vísir this morning, Úlfar Lúðvíksson, the police chief in Suðurnes, stated that all the key response teams were currently meeting this morning to review the situation in Grindavík. A meeting with the coordination centre of the National Police Commissioner began at 8 AM.

“We are reviewing the state of affairs in Grindavík. The town lacks hot and cold water and electricity. We are considering how to save valuables and assessing the situation. The town is obviously dangerous. There is an eruption just outside the town and lava flow has already caused damage,” Úlfar remarked. 

He added that meetings will also be held with representatives from the Icelandic Meteorological Office today.

Preemptive Lava Barriers Proposed in Grindavík Town Hall

Proposals to erect protective lava barriers on the Reykjanes peninsula were introduced at a town hall meeting in Grindavík yesterday. A geophysicist with the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management expressed scepticism that the barriers would be situated on the “right side” of a possible eruption.

A familiar pattern

Despite the Icelandic MET Office reporting that no uplift had occurred over the past three to four days in the Svartsengi area on the Reykjanes peninsula, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management held a town hall meeting in Grindavík yesterday.

As of late May, the land around Svartsengi had risen almost five centimetres – likely owing to magma intrusion 4-5km below the surface – and an earthquake swarm had been ongoing, despite no signs of volcanic unrest. These geological events are reminiscent of similar disturbances in the area before the eruption near Fagradalsfjall in 2021. While the Fagradalsfjall eruption did not threaten infrastructure in the area, the current magma intrusion is located underneath a geothermal power plant, and an uncertainty phase is still in effect in the area.

Proposals on protective lava barriers introduced

In addition to professors in geology, the town hall meeting in Grindavík was also attended by police officers and search-and-rescue workers on the Reykjanes peninsula, along with representatives from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, from neighbouring municipalities, and from companies that operate important infrastructure in the area.

There were also a few engineers present, among them Ari Guðmundsson from Verkís, who introduced the proposals of a task force, established in March of last year, entrusted with protecting important infrastructure in the event of an eruption.

Although the task force’s proposals will not be made available to the media prior to review by public administrators, Ari Guðmundsson told RÚV that, among other things, the task force had proposed the erection of preemptive protective barriers.

“That’s what we’ve proposed: the partial erection of protective lava barriers. But these proposals are subject to further review, in regard to environmental impact, e.g., and in regard to just how complete these barriers will be.”

Commenting on this proposal, Björn Oddsson, a geophysicist with the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, offered the following caveat: “Given that we have an open area with long fissures, it’s uncertain whether a protective barrier that’s erected prior to an eruption will be situated on the right side of the eruption – or the wrong side.”

“The proposals will be reviewed by the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management,” Ari Explained, “and they’ll decide on the next steps. We also proposed a review of a more extensive area on Reykjanes, stretching as far as Bláfjöll and Hengill, but that’s a much more extensive project.”

“It’s the beginning of a much more comprehensive project that must be undertaken,” Björn agreed.

A “temporary hiatus”

Despite no signs of volcanic unrest, Þorvaldur Þórðarson, professor of geology and volcanology at the University of Iceland, stated that the relative stillness on the peninsula over the past few days should be taken as a “temporary hiatus” as opposed to a sign that geological activity had ceased.

“Obviously, magma is no longer intruding at the former depth, and so there’s no uplift, which means that the immediate threat of an eruption has decreased; there won’t be an eruption any time soon,” Þorvaldur stated.

“Not this summer?” RÚV reporter Hólmfríður Dagný Friðjónsdóttir inquired.

“I wouldn’t think so. I certainly don’t hope so.”