Multiple Smaller Quakes Recorded Near Mt. Þorbjörn

Svartsengi

Numerous smaller quakes have been recorded under and around Mt Þorbjörn on the Reykjanes peninsula this afternoon.

A great many of these quakes have been recorded aligning with the ongoing eruption fissure. While none of these quakes have been recorded as having a magnitude greater than 2, there have not been this many smaller quakes over such a short period of time since the eruption on March 16th.

This follows a 3.3 quake yesterday, although today’s cluster reportedly stopped around 3:00 PM Icelandic time.

Meanwhile, ground surface rising has been continuing at the same rate as was recorded in the beginning of April. While probably an indicator of magma movement beneath the surface, this does not necessarily mean the arrival of another eruption.

The current eruption, comprising a single crater issuing lava and gasses, does not appear to be increasing in activity.

Five Magma Intrusions, Three Eruptions

svartsengi power plant reykjanes

Five magma intrusions have formed near the town of Grindavík, Southwest Iceland, since November but only three of them have broken the surface as eruptions. Magma continues to collect below Svartsengi and uplift (land rise) continues at the site. Recent earthquakes on Reykjanes are more likely a result of magma cooling underground than signs of an impending eruption, according to Salóme Jórunn Bernharðsdóttir, natural hazard specialist at the Icelandic Met Office.

Three brief eruptions occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula near the town of Grindavík in December, January, and February. In late February, as the magma chamber below Svartsengi filled once more, experts predicted a fourth eruption would occur in early March. However, while collecting magma flowed out of the chamber, it never broke the surface and now appears to be cooling underground.

Magma continues to collect below Svartsengi and the amount is now more than it was before the magma intrusion in early March. Salóme told RÚV that if another eruption occurs at the site, it will likely be preceded by the same seismic activity as the last three eruptions in the area.

The eruptions have not impacted flights or travel to and from Iceland.

Read more about the recent eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula.

Exploring the Unique Geography of Iceland

Northern lights by a waterfall in Þingvellir, Iceland

Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. The land formed due to volcanic eruptions along the ridge of the North Atlantic Ocean. Due to volcanic activity, deglaciation, and earthquakes, the land is constantly evolving. Iceland is located between latitudes 63-68°N and longitudes 25-13°W in Northern Europe, making it an ideal place to see the northern lights in the wintertime. Its eight geographical regions are the South, the Southern Peninsula, the Northeast, the Northwest, the West, the Westfjords, the East, and the Capital Region. The Highland of Iceland, a 42,000 km² [16,000 mi²] area of lava fields and mountains, takes up about 40% of the land. Approximately 25% of the country is under official protection, mainly as national parks. Vatnajökull National Park, Þingvellir National Park, and Surtsey island are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Population distribution in Iceland

Due to the Highland being uninhabitable, Iceland’s population of over 399,000 primarily lives along the coasts and surrounding islands. The capital, Reykjavik, and its suburbs host 64% of the population or about 255,000 people. Other large cities include Reykjanesbær, with a population of 23,000 and Akureyri, in the north of the island, with a population of 20,000. The rest live in smaller towns and rural communities. In addition, Iceland has over 30 islands, six of which are inhabited: Grímsey island, Hrísey island, Heimaey island, Flatey island, Vigur island, and Æðey island.

Gunnuhver, geothermal hot spring in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Gunnuhver hot spring.

Iceland’s energy and water

Iceland has an extensive amount of unpolluted freshwater resources. The tap water is fresh and ready to drink, and geothermal water is used to heat 85% of houses. Iceland is known for being the world’s largest green energy and electricity producer per capita. Iceland’s renewable energy provides almost 100% of its electricity production from hydropower and geothermal power.

The climate in Iceland

Iceland’s climate is classified as subarctic, with short, cool to mild summers and cold winters. In the capital region, the average temperatures in the summer are 10°C [52°F] and in the winter 0°C [32°F].

Lakes and waterfalls in Iceland

Iceland has over 60 lakes that exceed 2.5 km² [one mi²] in size. The largest is Þingvallavatn, with an area of 84 km² [32 mi²] and at its deepest point, 114 m [374 ft]. Out of thousands of mountains, the highest peak is Hvannadalshnjúkur, with its highest point at 2,110 m [6,920 ft]. Due to the many mountains and hills, you can find over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland, the tallest being Morsárfoss in Vatnajökull National Park, towering at 240 m [787 ft].

The Icelandic Horse, Iceland
Photo: Golli.

The flora and fauna of Iceland

The only native wild mammal in Iceland is the Arctic Fox. Some of the more prominent animals include the Icelandic horse, the Icelandic sheep, the Icelandic sheepdog, cattle, goats, and 75 species of birds, including Atlantic puffins, skuas, and ptarmigans. Iceland has a rich marine life in its lakes, rivers, and oceans: over 270 species of fish, whales, dolphins, and seals. Fish is one of the country’s main exports, making it crucial to its economy.

Iceland’s greenery consists primarily of moss, downy birch, aspens, and flowers such as the Mountain Aven, Alaskan Lupine, and Marigolds. Despite the cold climate, geothermal energy makes it possible to grow vegetables and fruit outside, including potatoes, carrots, beets, rhubarb, cauliflower, and broccoli. Fruit grown outside includes wild berries like blueberries, crowberries, and redcurrants. Using geothermal energy, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, and herbs are grown in greenhouses.

Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Iceland, 2023
Photo: Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Peninsula, 2023.

Iceland: The land of fire and ice

Iceland has 269 glaciers, including Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. This massive glacier is 8,100 km² [3,100 mi²] but sadly continues to decrease in size due to climate change.

In Iceland’s geothermal areas, there are hot springs and geysers. Forty-one volcanic systems are believed to be active in Iceland, the largest being the Bárðabunga system, responsible for most of the country’s largest lava fields. Some of Iceland’s most active volcanoes are Hekla, Katla and Grímsvötn. The volcanic systems on Reykjanes peninsula have had the most activity recently, erupting every year since 2021 after laying dormant for eight centuries. Its eruption on January 14th, 2024, caused lava to flow into the town of Grindavík. Three houses burned, but the town had been evacuated two nights prior. This was the first time lava entered an inhabited area since the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar islands in 1973.

 

Volcanic Activity In Reykjanes Calm For Now

Despite all indications that yet another eruption was about to kick off in Reykjanes yesterday, the situation has returned to one of relative calm, with one natural hazards expert describing it as “as normal as it gets”.

As reported, significant movement of magma in the Svartsengi area, coupled with seismic activity and ground surface rising, led many scientists to believe that an eruption was mere hours away. Even the Blue Lagoon and Grindavík were evacuated in anticipation of an eruption.

However, natural hazards expert Hildur María Friðriksdóttir told Vísir today that all magma movement under the surface has stopped, while at the same time cautioning that the situation could change.

RÚV reports that while some seismic activity was recorded in the area yesterday evening, this had more or less ceased by seven in the evening.

The evacuation of the Blue Lagoon and Grindavík are still in effect. A new assessment of the situation will be conducted tomorrow.

What’s the situation on the Reykjanes peninsula? Is there going to be another eruption?

Reykjanes Svartsengi power plant

Update: An eruption began on the Reykjanes peninsula on December 18, 2023 at 10:17 PM and ended around December 21. The eruption site is near Sýlingafell, some 3km [1.9mi] away from Grindavík. More information on the December 2023 eruption. The article below describes the lead-up to that eruption.

 

It has been a time of upheaval for the Southwest Iceland town of Grindavík (pop. 3,600), which was evacuated on November 10 amid powerful seismic activity. Earthquakes and the formation of a magma dike under the town have opened crevasses and damaged roads, homes, and infrastructure in and around Grindavík.

As of early December, it appears that magma has stopped flowing into the dike and experts say an eruption is considered less likely. However, they warn that the seismic events could repeat over the coming months, with magma flowing into the dike once more and threatening Grindavík. While the town’s evacuation order remains in effect, Grindavík residents are permitted to enter the town to retrieve belongings and maintain their homes and properties. Some businesses in the town have also restarted operations.

As always, volcanic activity is difficult to predict. As the last eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula have shown, Iceland has some of the best-monitored volcanoes in the world, but despite this, when, where, and if an eruption will occur can be difficult to say with precision, even for experts. With that warning out of the way, here’s what we know so far about the latest phase of seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula.

Earthquakes and uplift on Reykjanes

An earthquake swarm began on the Reykjanes peninsula on the night of October 24, 2023 just north of the town of Grindavík. On October 27, the land in the area began to rise, indicating a magma intrusion in the earth below. The intrusion was later confirmed by experts, some 4-5 kilometres [2.5-3.1 miles] below the surface of the peninsula, not far from where three eruptions have occurred over the last three years.

The magma intrusion has since grown and lengthened to stretch below the town of Grindavík and out to sea. In late November, some experts suggested that most of the magma in the intrusion had solidified, though fresh magma was still believed to be streaming in. So far, no volcanic unrest has been detected. This is the fifth time that deformation has been measured at this location since 2020. None of the previous instances resulted in an eruption.

Threat posed to Svartsengi power plant

Current data and measurements indicate that another eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula is still a possibility. Given the possible location of an eruption, there is a real danger posed to operations at Svartsengi, which is the main supplier of electricity and water to the Reykjanes peninsula. Iceland’s Parliament passed a bill on November 13 to enable the building of lava barriers around the power plant and the Blue Lagoon and construction has begun and is ahead of schedule.

Town of Grindavík

In the path of an eruption for the fourth time now, Grindavík was evacuated on the evening of November 10 according to existing evacuation plans. Residents have since been permitted to enter the town temporarily to retrieve belongings, valuables, and pets that may have been left behind. The town has experienced significant damage due to the ongoing seismic activity, including cracks in roads and buildings, damage to water and electrical infrastructure, and crevasses that have opened up throughout the town. Experts have stated that an eruption would be preceded by shallow earthquakes and volcanic unrest, which would give at least 30 minutes warning before magma broke through above ground.

Tourism affected

The Blue Lagoon was closed on November 9, initially only until November 16. The company came under some criticism for not closing operations earlier, especially after tour operator and transit company Reykjavík Excursions ceased trips to the lagoon on November 7, citing concerns for staff and customer safety. The closure was extended several times before the lagoon officially reopened on December 17, 2023. While the lagoon itself as well as its on-site restaurant are open to visitors, the hotel remains closed for the time being in line with the continued overnight evacuation of Grinavík.

Resources

In addition to following our news coverage, readers may find the following resources useful:

The Icelandic Met Office

SafeTravel, for travel warnings and tips for staying safe.

The Icelandic Road Administration and its live map of road closures throughout Iceland.

The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

Iceland Review magazine published a photo series on the evacuation of Grindavík.

This article will be updated regularly.

 

Estimated Damage in Grindavík ISK 10 Billion

grindavík evacuation

The damage to homes and infrastructure in Grindavík could amount to ISK 10 billion [$71.4 million, €66.3 million], according to the director of the Natural Catastrophe Insurance of Iceland. Before paying out damages, authorities must reconsider the town’s zoning plan and whether some areas will be deemed no longer safe for residential housing. The town has been evacuated since November 10, after seismic activity and a magma dike opened crevasses and damaged roads, homes, and infrastructure.

230 Grindavík properties damaged

All buildings in Iceland are insured against natural disasters and insurance premiums are collected alongside fire insurance. The Natural Catastrophe Insurance of Iceland, a public institution tasked with insuring the main value of properties against natural disasters, has received reports of damage to 230 properties in Grindavík. So far, 140 of them have been inspected and the institution’s director Hulda Ragnheiður Árnadóttir stated she hopes the remaining 90 will be inspected by the end of the week.

Zoning reconsidered in Grindavík

The seismic events in Grindavík began in late October and earthquakes and land deformation continued over several weeks. Land deformation is still ongoing at Svartsengi, north of Grindavík. Hulda Ragnheiður says the circumstances of the damage are unusual as it occurred over a relatively long period of time. “That’s why it’s difficult to start paying out damages while it hasn’t been decided which areas are suitable for habitation.”

Experts have stated that Grindavík is at risk of further earthquakes and eruptions in the coming weeks and months and it is still unclear when it will be safe for the town’s 3,600 residents to return home. In some areas where damage has occurred, authorities may decide to ban rebuilding due to ongoing risk.

“I think it’s inevitable that the layout of the town will change in some way,” Hulda Ragnheiður stated. “All of the decisions that will be made are in the jurisdiction of the municipality of Grindavík in collaboration with scientists and the government. We will receive the information that comes out of that and process it.”

Magma Could Threaten Grindavík Again (and Again)

grindavík evacuation

Magma may start flowing into the dike underneath the town of Grindavík again days or months from now. The Icelandic town remains evacuated and experts say it is not clear when it will be safe for its residents to return to their homes. While an eruption near the town, located on the Reykjanes peninsula, is now considered less likely in the short term, a new phase of seismic activity may be beginning.

In late October, an earthquake swarm and uplift began on the Reykjanes peninsula near the town of Grindavík indicating magma collecting underground. The magma intrusion grew and filled a dike stretching beneath the town, leading authorities to issue an evacuation order on November 10 due to the risk of eruption.

A new chapter of activity

Magma inflow to the dike has likely stopped, according to a notice from the Met Office, and the chances of an eruption happening along the dike at this time have decreased. However, magma continues to accumulate just north of Grindavík, beneath Svartsengi, where a geothermal power plant and the Blue Lagoon are located. “The ongoing activity at Svartsengi, which began in October, is not yet over and a new chapter may have begun with an increased chance of a new magma propagation and, subsequently, increased likelihood of an eruption,” the Met Office notice states.

“[T]he dike beneath Grindavík was fed by magma accumulating beneath Svartsengi. It is likely that this sequence of events will repeat,” the notice continues. A new magma propagation would provide a warning in the form of earthquakes and ground deformation, which would be detected by equipment “several hours before the magma propagation is likely to pose a threat to Svartsengi or Grindavík.”

Timeline impossible to estimate

According to the Met Office, this pattern of magma accumulating beneath Svartsengi and flowing into the dike that stretches below Grindavík is likely to happen again, even repeatedly. However, it is impossible to estimate whether that will be “in the next few days or possibly after several months.”

Kristín Jónsdóttir, Head of the Volcanos, Earthquakes, and Deformation Department at the Icelandic Met Office, told RÚV it was not clear when it would be safe for Grindavík residents to return to their homes.

Months Before Grindavík Residents Can Return Home

It will be months before all residents of the Southwest Iceland town of Grindavík can return home. Iceland’s government held a press conference at 11:30 AM this morning to present an action plan on housing support for the town’s residents, who were evacuated from their homes on November 10 amid powerful earthquakes and the threat of a volcanic eruption.

Financial support and rental apartments

Grindavík residents will receive financial support to help them cover rent payments on temporary housing. The amount of support will be based on the number of people in each household. Rental company Bríet will buy up to 150 apartments on the market in order to make them available to displaced Grindavík residents, and rental company Bjarg will buy up to 60 specifically intended for lower-income households.

A working group is also exploring the possibility of importing housing units. Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says that housing support measures will be discussed in Parliament next week. Katrín stated that she expects a bill on financial support for Grindavík residents to be passed next week as well.

Utilities infrastructure to determine when residents can return

When Grindavík residents will be permitted to return home depends on the state of the town’s utilities infrastructure, some of which was damaged by powerful earthquakes earlier this month. Grindavík municipal authorities are to have the state of utilities infrastructure assessed. It is possible that residents will be permitted to move back into the town in stages, as the amount of damage varies between districts.

The town remains under an evacuation order for the time being. While the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management have lowered their emergency phase to a danger phase, experts say there is still a possibility of volcanic eruption in the area. The most likely location of an eruption is currently considered to be near Hagafell mountain, northeast of Grindavík.

Hazard Area Around Grindavík Expanded

grindavík hazard area

The Icelandic Met Office updated its map of the hazard area around Grindavík yesterday, November 20.

The updated map was made with new data from satellite mapping of the area, in consultation with the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, the IMO, and experts from University of Iceland.

As can be seen on the map, three zones are marked.

Hazard zone A, the largest zone, indicates an increased likelihood of seismic activity.

Hazard zone B indicates a danger of volcanic eruption, including fissures that may open with little warning, dangerous gases, sinkholes, and lava flow.

Hazard zone C indicates the same dangers posed by zone B, but at a heightened level. ICE-SAR, police authorities, and workers in this area are advised to have escape routes in mind, in addition to carrying gas metres and gas masks.

Making predictions

In an interview with Vísir, geophysicist Benedikt G. Ófeigsson stated that the most likely scenario is that an eruption may occur near Hagafell, a mountain east of Þorbjörn.

“That’s where we’ve seen magma influx occur after the formation of the magma chamber. It’s shallow, and we have good data on this, so we are looking at it as the most likely location for the source if an eruption occurs,” he stated.

Benedikt also reiterated the difficulty in predicting what this means for Grindavík. Importantly, the impact on the town of Grindavík would heavily depend on the exact location of a fissure and models of lava flow can only be made once it has reached the surface.

MET Office: Likelihood of Volcanic Eruption Remains “High”

Grindavík - Þorbjörn

The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management will hold a press conference at 11 AM to address the ongoing geological unrest on the Reykjanes peninsula and the response of the authorities. The Icelandic MET Office still believes that there is a high likelihood of a volcanic eruption.

120 homeowners to be granted access

Since midnight, the Reykjanes peninsula has experienced 460 earthquakes, with the strongest reaching a magnitude of 2.7, RÚV reports. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management is holding a press conference at 11 AM today to update the public on the ongoing geological unrest in the area.

Starting at 9 AM today, homeowners from Grindavík, who had registered on Island.is and received notifications, were allowed access to their properties via Suðurstrandavegur (as opposed to Grindavíkurvegur). This access is permitted until 3 PM, after which businesses will be allowed entry. A total of 120 homeowners are expected to be allowed into Grindavík today.

According to RÚV, information from an Icelandic MET Office interferogram indicates accelerated land uplift near the Svartsengi area. The MET Office still believes that there is a “high likelihood” of an impending volcanic eruption.

A range of officials, including government ministers, local government representatives, Grindavík municipal staff, the National Police Commissioner, and emergency response teams, will be available at the Grindavík residents’ service centre at the Toll House (Tollahúsið) on Tryggvagata 19 in downtown Reykjavík from 4 to 5 PM today.