2023 in Review: Nature

Grindavík earthquakes crevasse

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the biggest nature-related stories from the year, which included two volcanic eruptions in Reykjanes.

Grindavík Evacuated

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. This was the first time since 1973 that an Icelandic town has been evacuated (or ever since the eruption on the Westman Islands). Earthquakes and the formation of a magma dike under the town opened crevasses and damaged roads, homes, and infrastructure in and around Grindavík.

Read More: Out of Harm´s Way (The Evacuation of Grindavík)

In early December, it appeared that magma had stopped flowing into the dike and experts believed that an eruption was less likely. However, they warned 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 was in effect, Grindavík residents were permitted to enter the town to retrieve belongings and maintain their homes and properties. Some businesses in the town have also restarted operations.

Volcanic Eruption Near Sýlingarfell

On the night of December 18, following weeks of waning seismic activity, and with some Grindavík residents complaining about the evacuation orders remaining in effect, a powerful volcanic eruption began near the town of Grindavík and by Mt. Sýlingarfell. The eruption occurred along a 4 km long fissure and the magma flow was much greater when compared to the previous three eruptions that had occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula over the past three years. Construction workers rushed to fill in gaps in the protective barriers by the Svartsengi Power Station. Fortunately, the lava did not damage infrastructure, although it could have threatened the Grindavíkurvegur road if it had continued flowing.

The eruption was short-lived, fortunately, and by December 21, it appeared that volcanic activity had completely ceased.

On December 22, the authorities announced the lifting of the evacuation orders, starting December 23. A handful of residents chose to return and spend Christmas at home; however, many residents, contending that it was still not safe to stay in town, chose to remain in temporary housing outside of Grindavík. The government had previously announced that it would extend housing support throughout the winter for Grindavík residents (the government had also secured additional housing through rental companies).

With land uplift having continued near the Svartsengi Power Station, experts believe that further volcanic activity is likely in the future.

Eruption at Litli-Hrútur

Starting July 4, 2023, a significant increase in seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula led to over 12,000 earthquakes near the area where two volcanic eruptions had occurred in 2021 and 2022 respectively. This seismic activity eventually culminated in a powerful eruption on July 10 near Litli-Hrútur. The eruption was strong: ten times more lava flow than the previous two eruptions. The eruption initially featured multiple fissures extending over 1 km and a very high lava flow rate, but it soon settled into a single fissure with a steadily growing cone.

Read More: Live, Laugh, Lava (the Litli-Hrútur Eruption)

Given how dry it had been, the eruption set off multiple wildfires, which kept firefighters working around the clock. Once again, the eruption, which was relatively brief, proved highly popular among tourists; volcanic activity ceased on August 5.

Whaling Season Postponed

On June 20, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, announced that she would be postponing the start of the fin-whale hunting season until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report authored by a council of specialists on animal welfare, which found that the methods employed in the hunting of whales did not comply with the Act on Animal Welfare.

Read More: Sea Change (Has Iceland Seen Its Last Whaling Season?)

After much clamour from anti-whaling activists around the world, the Minister did not extend the temporary postponement of the whaling season, which commenced on September 6. The ships of Iceland´s only whaling company, Hvalur hf., were, however, subjected to increased surveillance and stricter regulations set by the Minister of Fisheries in September. Charges were pressed against two activists, who had climbed into the crow´s nests of two of Hvalur´s whaling vessels to protest.

Sea-Lice in Tálknafjörður, the Great Escape — More Controversy Surrounding Salmon Farming

On August 20, approximately 3,500 farm-raised salmon escaped through two holes on an open-pen fish farm operated by Arctic Fish in Patreksfjörður, a fjord in Iceland’s Westfjords. Arctic Fish had not inspected the condition of the pens for 95 days.

In September, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), confirmed that 26 farmed salmon traced to the escape in Patreksfjörður had been caught in several fishing rivers in West and North Iceland. By October, the Federation of Icelandic River Owners claimed that 344 farmed salmon had been captured in 46 different locations. In response to the escape, the Directorate of Fisheries announced that it would provisionally extend the angling season until mid-November to increase the chances of farmed salmon being caught (teams of Norwegian divers were dispatched to aid in the capture of the escaped fish).

Read More: Balancing the Scales (Do the Costs of Fish Farming in Iceland Outweigh the Benefits?)

On October 7, a protest against salmon farming in open-net pens was held on Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík. Less than a month later, Heimildin reported that at least one million salmon had perished or had been discarded due to an uncontrollable outbreak of sea lice in Tálknafjörður in the southern Westfjords. Speaking to Heimildin, Karl Steinar Óskarsson, Head of the Aquaculture Department at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), stated that “no one had seen a sea lice infestation spread like this before.”

New Climate Report Published

In September, a report titled “Climate Resilient Iceland” (i.e. Loftslagsþolið Ísland in Icelandic) was unveiled. Commissioned by the Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, a steering committee produced the report to assess the necessary measures for society to adapt to climate change, emphasising that the impacts of climate change are already evident.

Read More: In Due Force (Unprecedented Mudslides)

According to the report, altered weather patterns, increased landslides, and heightened flood risks are among the challenges Icelanders will face in the coming years. When asked whether emphasising adaptation to climate change signified a form of resignation, Anna Hulda Ólafsdóttir, Office Manager of Climate Services and Adaptation at the Icelandic Meteorological Office and a co-author of the report, replied, “Yes and no; this is the reality we are facing. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Humans have always adapted to changing circumstances.”

 

Deep North Episode 40: Live, Laugh, Lava

Thelma Rut

For the third year in a row, there’s a volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula, only a stone’s throw away from the city centre. This eruption marks a pattern, with around 300 days between eruptions, geologists’ predictions of a new eruption phase for the long-dormant volcano system seem to be coming to fruition. For visitors to the island, as well as the locals themselves, this series of “tourist-friendly” eruptions has been welcomed, with thousands of hikers making their way up to see lava gushing forth from the crater down into the field below – the freshest rock on earth.

In episode 40 of Deep North, we talk about how the latest eruption on Reykjanes affected the lives of locals. Note that at the time of recording, the eruption was still ongoing. It has since concluded. Read the story here.

Live, Laugh, Lava

reykjanes eruption

For the third year in a row, there’s a volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula, only a stone’s throw away from the city centre. This eruption marks a pattern, with around 300 days between eruptions, geologists’ predictions of a new eruption phase for the long-dormant volcano system seem to be coming to fruition. For visitors […]

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Eruption at Litli-Hrútur Over

iceland eruption 2022

The volcanic eruption at Litli-Hrútur was determined to be at an end over the holiday weekend. Morgunblaðið reports.

The eruption was declared officially over on Saturday, August 5. Further volcanic activity on Reykjanes would be considered a new eruption.

However, volcanologist have speculated that the recent series of eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula signals the beginning of an era of increased volcanic activity in the region. According to volcanologist Þorvaldur Þórðarson, it is “probable that we will have another eruption near the latest one, possibly two or three additional eruptions.”

According to Þorvaldur, it is characteristic of such eruptions to occur along a linear rift, where one eruption triggers the next. Such fissure eruptions can involve multiple eruptions spread out over years.

Litli-Hrútur Produced 30-50% Less Lava

2023 litli-hrútur eruption iceland

Last week, the Litli-Hrútur eruption produced around 30-50% less lava than the previous week. If this trend continues, the end of the eruption could be only one to two weeks away, reports RÚV.

According to vulcanologist Þorvaldur Þórðarson, the lava flow needs to rest at around three cubic metres per second in order to keep the eruption open. The lava flow has most recently been measured at five to six metres per second, and if the rate should fall further, the end of the eruption may be in sight.

Read More: Eruption Site Closed After 6:00 PM

Such predictions are of course to be taken with some reservation, but according to Þorvaldur, “measured against the recent changes last week, it could be just one or two weeks until the end of the eruption, maybe a bit longer.”

He continued: “These predictions are always somewhat uncertain since we of course don’t know what the future holds.” He also noted that an increase in the flow cannot be ruled out if for instance, a large earthquake should have an effect on the eruption.

The 2023 Litli-Hrútur eruption began with more power than the previous 2021 Geldingadalir and 2022 Meradalir eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula, at around 40 cubic metres per second. However, the volume quickly dropped off, measuring 16 cubic metres by the second day, and 10 cubic metres by the third day. Since then, it has steadily declined to the rate of five to six that we see today.

Þorvaldur stated to RÚV: “This eruption might last four to five weeks in total, which would be two weeks longer than the eruption last year but considerably shorter than the eruption in Geldingadalir 2021, as that eruption was rather exceptional.”

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Firefighting Efforts Continue at Reykjanes Eruption

litli hrútur eruption 2023

Authorities announced today that the Meradalaleið (Hiking Trail E) would be closed so that firefighting teams could transport equipment. The eruption site was still accessible from Suðurstrandarvegur (the South Coast Road). Meradalaleið has since been reopened.

RÚV reports that tanker trucks will be employed for the first time today. Previously, water had been transported to the eruption site by helicopter.

The new tankers will be of great use to the teams at the site, able to transport some eight to ten thousand litres of water per trip. The helicopter previously in use had only been able to carry one to two thousand litres per trip.

Einar Sveinn Jónsson, the chief of the Grindavík Fire Department, stated to RÚV:

“We are heading up the mountain and are planning to try to tackle this with the tankers. We have about six to eight vehicles shuttling water up, in addition to personnel and shovels to help if we need to clear stones. It’s a major operation today.”

So far, some 400 hectares (988 acres) of moss have been destroyed by wildfires in the area.

The Grindavík Fire Department is also receiving significant assistance from both ICE-SAR and neighbouring fire departments.

Eruption Site Closed After 6:00 PM

reykjanes eruption litli hrútur

Local authorities have announced that hiking trails to the Litli-Hrútur eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula will close at 6:00 PM today.

The area will be accessible from Suðurstrandarvegur (South Coast Road), but all routes from the North, including Keilir, are closed.

Yesterday’s closure is reported to have gone smoothly. According to the police chief’s assessment, it was not justifiable to keep the walking paths open all day long due to safety reasons. The walking paths from Suðurstrandarvegur will be closed daily at 6:00 PM. This decision will be in effect as long as the eruption continues at the mountain Litli-Hrútur.

iceland eruption 2023
Reykjanes Police – Map of the hazard zone around Litli-Hrútur eruption.

The estimated number of people on Meradalaleið hiking trail yesterday was 1,952. An additional 1,358 visitor were recorded on other trails to the site.

Police officers, Civil Protection officers, and medical personnel are present in the area today. There have also been reports that ICE-SAR, an all-volunteer rescue squad, has had difficulty in fully manning shifts.

 

Largest Moss Fires On Record

reykjanes eruption 2023

Since the beginning of the Litli-Hrútur eruption on July 10, some 250 hectares [617 acres] of moss have burned. The wildfires on the Reykjanes peninsula are the largest-ever since records began, according to a recent report by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

Wildfires in the area began shortly after the eruption on Reykjanes, spreading rapidly to the North, East, and South. Efforts to contain the wildfires are still ongoing, with ICE-SAR, local firefighting teams, and the coastguard helicopter all taking part.

Aerial photographs taken by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History on July 11 showed that 15 hectares were burned, but only two days later, on July 13, an additional 95 hectares had burned, and the fire has spread significantly since.

 

reykjanes eruption wildfires
Járngerður Grétarsdóttir – Icelandic Institute of Natural History

Experts from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History state that from an environmental and conservation perspective, it is crucial to curb the spread of wildfires. When moss burns, the damage to vegetation is comparatively greater compared to grassland or wetland fires. According to the report, roots are often left intact after wildfires in grass- and wetlands, meaning that regrowth after such fires is relatively rapid. Moss, however, has no roots, meaning that regrowth takes considerably longer in moss fires.

Overall biodiversity is also affected, including small animals and birds. After a moss fire vegetation can entirely disappear, creating a risk of soil erosion and desertification. Luckily, experts report that due to the low-lying nature of the area, the risk of soil erosion is reduced. However, regrowth may still take decades.

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Reykjanes Eruption Site Remains Closed

iceland volcano 2023

The Reykjanes eruption site remains closed today, July 17, following a meeting of The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management and local authorities. However, the decision will be reconsidered today at 1:00 PM.

The decision to close the site was made July 13 and it remained closed over the weekend.

Smoke from wildfires obscured the hiking trails to the eruption site, in addition to posing a health risk. Under these circumstances, local authorities could not guarantee the safety of those entering the area.

Read more: Firefighters Fought Wildfires Near Eruption Site Until 2 AM

Efforts are now being made to extinguish the wildfires northeast of Keilir towards the viewpoint at Hraunsels-Vatnsfell. Police also report that the Coast Guard helicopter is on its way to assist in the firefighting operation.

Despite the area being closed, search and rescue teams had to search for two travellers last night. A man in his forties was found on Höskuldarvallavegur at 6:00 A, and a woman was found east of Keilir at 3:00 AM.

reykjanes eruption hiking trail
Suðurnes Police

The above picture was taken by local authorities at 6:30 AM and shows the difficult visibility conditions. Gas plumes can be seen blowing over the hiking trail, in addition to smoke from the wildfires.

Read more about Iceland’s latest eruption on the Reykjanes here.

 

Firefighters Fought Wildfires Near Eruption Site Until 2 AM

iceland volcano 2023

Firefighters worked until 2 AM extinguishing wildfires that have arisen as a result of the eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula. A fire marshall with the Grindavík Fire Brigade told RÚV that there was plenty of work to be done today.

Managed to extinguish small fires near the trail

Firefighters worked to extinguish wildfires in the vicinity of the eruption site at Litli-Hrútur until 2 AM. Daníel Karlsson, Duty Officer with the Grindavík Fire Brigade, told Mbl.is this morning that the firefighting had gone well: “It went well. We managed to put out the smaller fire near the trail to the eruption site.”

According to Daníel, preparations for the day’s firefighting began at 8 AM.

Thick blue smoke covers the hiking trail

Einar Sveinn Jónsson, Fire Marshall with the Grindavík Brigade, is among those who have fought the wildfires near the eruption site. Einar told RÚV this morning that the outlook had often been rosier and that there was a significant amount of smoke.

“Naturally, it’s quite windy, so the smoke covers the trail. Thick, blue smoke from the wildfires blow through the final 2-3 kilometres of the trail, which makes it completely impossible to hike the trail. It is barely passable by car, due to pollution; you can hardly see.”

Einar told RÚV that the firefighting last night and into the early hours of today went well: “But there’s quite a bit of work left. Today’s task will probably be challenging, considering the amount of pollution. But it hasn’t gotten so bad that we have to stop.”