Regulation Changes Needed to Ensure Safe Housing

Slökkvilið höfuðborgarsvæðisins bs / Facebook. Fire in Hafnarfjörður, August 20, 2023

Iceland’s housing problem gets worse with each passing year, President of The Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson stated in a radio interview yesterday morning. One died and two others were hospitalised in a fire earlier this week that broke out in an industrial building that was being used for housing. Thousands are likely living in buildings that are not classified as residential in Iceland and Finnbjörn says such residences should be legalised to ease safety monitoring.

Housing a key issue in upcoming wage negotiations

Finnbjörn says there simply isn’t enough housing to meet demand in Iceland. “We can’t even keep up with normal [population] growth, let alone when we get such a huge wave of working people that the society needs,” he stated. “Everyone needs somewhere to live and so they go to these industrial buildings that are not intended for residence.”

Following a fatal house fire in June 2020, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings in Iceland in 2021. Finnbjörn says that housing will be at the forefront in the coming collective agreement negotiations. He expressed his faith that the situation would improve.

New legislation on the way

Living in buildings that are not classified as residential buildings is currently illegal in Iceland. It has proven difficult for fire departments to monitor such buildings due to privacy laws. However, the Minister of Infrastructure plans to introduce a bill next month that would allow for temporary residence permits in buildings that are not classified as residential, provided they fulfil safety requirements. The legislation would also authorise fire departments to monitor such buildings more closely.

Tour Operator Calls for Increased Safety Near Askja Volcano

The owner of a tourism company in the Mývatn region in North Iceland told RÚV yesterday that he was worried about the lack of telecommunications near Askja, now that an eruption is considered likely within a year. Road maintenance to Askja is also lacking.

Great responsibility involved in bringing tourists to the area

There is little or no telephone or tetra connection near Askja – an active volcano situated in a remote part of the central highlands of Iceland. It takes about three hours to drive to Askja from the Ring Road. This is unfortunate in light of a possible and sudden eruption, the owner of a tourism company in Mývatnsveit told RÚV yesterday.

Over the summer, tour operator Gísli Rafn Jónsson takes groups of travellers on bus trips to Askja on a near daily basis. In an interview with RÚV yesterday, he stated that ensuring the safety of his passengers was a big responsibility – especially given the likelihood of an eruption. Volcanologist Þorvaldur Þórðarson recently predicted that an eruption would occur in Askja within a year.

“This accumulation of magma and the conditions that can arise, which are several and varying in severity, means that I am, naturally, very worried,” Gísli stated.

Quick escape an impossibility

From the Ring Road, a highland road approximately 100 kilometres in length, which takes about three hours to drive, leads to Askja. From there, it’s about a two-and-a-half kilometre walk to Lake Öskjuvatn and Víti, which is where most of the tourists who visit Askja go. It can, therefore, be estimated that it takes about four hours to get from Lake Öskjuvatn down to the Ring Road.

“This route is very slow, and there are sections on the route that have become very worn and need to be fixed. Other parts of the route are lava, which means that it takes a long time to drive away. Speedy evacuation is an impossibility,” Gísli observed. It would be unsuitable if there was a sudden eruption, RÚV noted.

No talk of improvements to telecommunications

In the highlands near Lake Öskjuvatn and Víti there is very little telephone and tetra connection. Gísli believes that this must be redressed. “In terms of security, we have to ask ourselves if it isn’t necessary to temporarily secure a cellphone signal.”

Magnús Hauksson, operations manager of the National Emergency Number (Neyðarlínan), told RÚV that there had been no discussion about improving telecommunications in the area or how such measures could be implemented. Furthermore, it remained unclear who was responsible for ensuring electronic communication, as no one was legally obligated to guarantee telecommunications throughout the country.

These issues were, however, taken into consideration in 2018 – but that was the extent of it. Based on the situation, Magnús believes there is reason to take action. But when and how that action will be taken remains uncertain.

Icelandic Roads Least Lethal Worldwide

Route 1 Iceland

German car subscription service, FINN, has recently rated Iceland the number 1 nation “where you are least likely to die on the road.”

The survey included OECD member states and considered such factors as road deaths per 100,000, overall road quality, speed limits, traffic volume and levels, and percentages of alcohol-related road deaths.

Iceland came in first place for “least likely to die on the road,” with only 2.05 road death per 100,000. Peer nation Norway came in second place, at 2.12, followed by Switzerland in third, with 2.25.

The survey stated: “Despite poor weather conditions and many unpaved roads, Icelandic drivers are some of the least likely in the world to face fatalities on the road. Iceland is a hub for tourism, consequently, many popular roads around the golden circle and Reykjavik are tarmacked and well-maintained compared to the sparsely populated centre of the country which is connected by a network of gravel roads.”

Notably, this category was distinct from “safest roads,” which took more factors into account, such as those mentioned above. The Netherlands placed first in the category, followed by Norway, and a third-place tie between Sweden and Estonia. Iceland was rated 8th for overall road safety.

Argentina had the honour of taking first place for “most dangerous roads,” whereas Saudia Arabia placed first for “countries where you are most likely to die on the road.”

Eruption Site Open and Wildfires Quelled

litli hrútur 2023

The eruption site on Reykjanes is open to visitors today and firefighters have managed to subdue the wildfires that have been raging at the site. Hiking routes to the eruption were closed yesterday evening due to poor visibility. The eruption began on July 10, the third volcanic eruption in the same area of Reykjanes in three years.

No serious incidents were reported from the eruption site last night, though some exhausted hikers needed help returning from the site. The hike is around 20 km round trip across uneven terrain and requires appropriate preparation and gear.

Wildfires no longer a threat

The eruption had set off wildfires in the moss surrounding the site, but firefighting efforts have proven successful in subduing them, Einar Sveinn Jónsson, Chief of the Grindavík Fire Department, told RÚV. “If there is any more fire, then it’s a very small amount that we can absolutely handle,” he stated. The wildfires on the Reykjanes peninsula have been the largest-ever since records began, according to a recent report by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

Rangers needed

The Environment Agency has received 29 applications from would-be rangers interesting in supervising the eruption site. The application deadline is tomorrow, Friday, and the Environment Agency encourages those with ranger certification to apply. Staffing the required positions may prove challenging as summer is the high season for tourism, and most certified rangers have already been stationed elsewhere in the country.

Read more about how to access the 2023 Reykjanes eruption.

How do I access the 2023 Reykjanes eruption?

reykjanes eruption 2023

An eruption began on the Reykjanes peninsula at 4:40 PM on July 10, 2023. It is the third eruption in three years at the site. The eruption area has been opened to visitors and below is all the necessary information on how to access it, including directions, route information, and safety considerations.

Checking conditions

To receive the most up-to-date information about access to the eruption site, it is best to check safetravel.is. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management website and Facebook page also provide information about safety at the site. Information on air quality in Iceland is available at loftgaedi.is. The site may be closed with short notice due to weather conditions or gas pollution, so make sure you check first before heading out.

Driving and parking

All off-road driving is illegal in Iceland. The hiking route to the eruption is accessed from Suðurstrandarvegur (Route 427). Cars must be parked at marked parking lots and parking on the side of the road is forbidden. Parking has a cost of ISK 1,000 [$7.60, €6.80] and can be paid online, more information is provided on-site.

Hiking route

The hike to the eruption is around 10km one way across uneven terrain. Hikers experienced with Icelandic conditions may be able to complete the hike in two hours one way (four hours round trip). Those with less experience should expect a hike of 3-4 hours one way, 6-8 hours round trip, which does not include time spent at the eruption itself. Hikers need proper footwear, warm clothing, and a wind- and rain-proof outer layer, and must bring food, water, and a fully charged cell phone. The hiking route is clearly marked from the available parking lots. More detailed information on hiking routes is available on visitreykjanes.is.

Safety risks

Visiting an active eruption poses several risks. One of the main risks is gas pollution, especially when conditions are still. Toxic gases from eruptions are heavier than the atmosphere meaning they gather close to the ground and in low-lying areas. This means that eruption sites pose a particular risk for children and pets, who are also more sensitive to toxic gases. Hikers are strongly discouraged from bringing young children or dogs to the eruption site. Surgical masks do not protect against toxic gases at eruptions.

Hikers are also encouraged to stay at a significant distance from the fresh lava, as new rivulets can break through suddenly and be difficult to escape from in due time. Visitors to the eruption should not under any circumstances walk on fresh lava: while the surface may look solid and cool, lava can remain molten underneath for years and even decades.

More about the eruption

For curious readers, Iceland Review has compiled an article with more information about the eruption itself. Several live feeds of the eruption are available online, including here and here.

This article will be updated regularly.

Three Deaths in Swimming Pools in Three Months

A woman in her late forties died in Lágafellslaug swimming pool in the town of Mosfellsbær yesterday, RÚV reports. It was the second death in a capital area pool within one week: a woman in her 80s died in Kópavogslaug swimming pool last Friday. In addition to these two cases, a man was found dead in a hot tub in Breiðholtslaug in Reykjavík last December. A swimming safety expert says it should not be possible for deaths like these to occur in capital area swimming pools.

Paramedics were called to Lágafellslaug pool in the capital area municipality of Mosfellsbær yesterday when a woman was found unconscious. The woman was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. Detective Superintendent Margeir Sveinsson says the case is under investigation, as other cases of deaths that occur in swimming pools.

Police continue to investigate the death that occurred in Breiðholtslaug pool last December. The victim was in his 70s and physically disabled, and he had likely been unconscious for around three minutes before he was discovered by another patron. Hafþór B. Guðmundsson, a former lecturer in sports science at the University of Iceland and an expert in swimming safety, was interviewed by RÚV last December following the death in Breiðholtslaug. He called for action on safety issues in Icelandic swimming pools.

Safety Signs, Cameras Installed at Reynisfjara Beach

Safety signs

Informatory signage has been installed at Reynisfjara beach to better ensure the safety of tourists. Cameras, mounted on masts on the beach ridge, will relay a live stream from the beach to the police authorities in Selfoss.

Creeping waves and a strong undertow

As noted in an article in Iceland Review from 2019, the tides that lap the beautiful black sand beaches of Reynisfjara beach – a popular travel destination near the town of Vík in South Iceland – possess “an immensely strong undertow,” with waves that “creep quickly upon travellers.” As of last summer, five travellers had died on Reynisfjara beach since 2013.

In response to these tragedies, a consultation team was established last summer in order to better ensure the safety of visitors. The consultation team recommended the installation of informatory signage on the beach, which has now been installed. In addition to the signs, a 300-metre-long chain has been strung along the parking lot, guiding visitors along a path and past the signs. Cameras, which have been installed on a mast on the beach ridge, will also stream live video from the beach to the police authorities in Selfoss.

“The signs emphasise information,” a press release from the Icelandic Tourist Board reads, “aiming to make the information accessible and interesting, explaining what can be done in the area – as opposed to simply highlighting what is prohibited. One illuminated sign, which relays information from the Icelandic Road Administration’s wave-prediction system; three big informatory signs, one of which highlights the dangers of the undertow; and six guiding signs have been installed.”

Beach divided into zones according to conditions

The press release also notes that the Reynisfjara beach will never be closed to the public. Instead, the beach will be divided into zones, which will serve to guide visitors based on conditions: a flashing yellow light indicates that visitors should not enter the yellow zone, and a flashing red light indicates that visitors should not enter the red zone (i.e. not past the illuminated sign). Visitors are encouraged to stay on the beach ridge, which affords a safe view of the beautiful scenery.

“The safety measures at Reynisfjara beach will only extend as far as signage, and no lifeguards will be employed at this time. Such a thing could, however, prove a logical next step – if only during those days when conditions are labelled ‘red.’ In order to finance such measures, landowners would need to collect fees from visitors.”

Lastly, the parties affiliated with the consultation team hope that the new safety measures will mean that visitors to the beach will become “more mindful of hazards” and comport themselves accordingly. “Signs, no matter how well designed, will not stop anyone from venturing near the tide; they are, however, useful in keeping most visitors within a safe zone, so as to enjoy the beach in all its majesty.”

The consultation team comprised representatives of landowners, the South Icelandic police, the Icelandic Tourist Board, ICE-SAR, the Icelandic Road Administration, and the Katla Geopark.

The Icelandic Medical Journal Publishes Report on Fireworks-Related Injuries

New Year's Eve Fireworks in Reykjavík, 2017.

Using data gathered between 2010 and 2022, the Medical Journal of Iceland has released a report on fireworks-related injuries in Iceland.

The study searched through medical records between these years for reports of fireworks and information related to the circumstances and severity of the injuries.

In total, some 248 people were sent to the hospital during this time for fireworks-related injuries, ranging in age from only 9 months old to 79 years old.

See also: No Smoke Without Fireworks

A large proportion of injuries, 39%, were also found to have been caused by faulty fireworks. Rockets were found to be the most dangerous, accounting for 23% of all injuries, followed by multishot box fireworks, which accounted for 17% of all injuries.

Injuries to hands and eyes were most common, and across the period of the study, individuals were hospitalized for a combined total of 91 days due to their injuries.

The report concludes that “firework accidents are a significant problem in Iceland.” An average of 21 Icelanders end up in the emergency room every year due to fireworks-related accidents. The large majority of these accidents occur on New Year’s Eve and the first hours of the New Year.

Fireworks-related accidents also, perhaps unsurprisingly, show a strong gender bias, with some three out of four affected individuals being male. However, a more serious trend is the number of children affected, with just less than half of all injuries coming from minors. One preschool-aged child, on average, each year ends up in the emergency room, generally due to a lack of supervision.

Over the course of the entire study, most injuries were found to be relatively minor cuts and burns, but at least 13 people were identified as having suffered serious injuries. The study suggests an increased emphasis on the correct handling of fireworks, especially the use of safety glasses.

Given the relatively high frequency of fireworks-related injuries, the study also suggests “considering further restrictions on their import, sale, and use.”

The report can be read in its entirety here.

Two Groups of Hikers Rescued at Closed Eruption Site

Meradalir eruption, August 2022

Search and rescue teams rescued two groups of travellers from the Meradalir eruption site yesterday evening. The site had been closed to visitors since early Sunday morning due to bad weather conditions, but not all travellers had respected the closure. After the two groups were rescued, crews combed the area to ensure no others were in the area and found a few more individuals who were escorted down to the parking lot.

The two groups, around ten people in total, had gotten lost on their way to the eruption site, a challenging hike of around 7 kilometres. Some had set off on the hike ill-prepared, despite being told to turn back by search and rescue volunteers who were on site.

Eruption site remains closed

The Department of Civil Bad weather has announced that the eruption site will remain closed to visitors today due to inclement weather. Authorities will meet at 8:30 AM tomorrow, Wednesday, August 10, to decide whether the site will be reopened.

Read more about what you need to know when visiting the Meradalir eruption.

Two Injured at Eruption Site

björgunarsveitin þorbjörn

Two people were injured while visiting the eruption that began on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula yesterday. One broke an ankle and had to be transported to hospital by a Coast Guard helicopter. Several others visiting the site required assistance due to minor injuries. It’s likely that thousands visited the eruption yesterday, according to RÚV, despite authorities’ warnings that the hike is long and not for those who are inexperienced or unprepared.

Challenging 17-kilometre hike

The eruption is located in Meradalir valley, further inland from the Fagradalsfjall eruption that occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula last year. The hike to the site is around 17 kilometres [10.6 miles] long and includes considerable elevation.

Suðurnes Police Commissioner Úlfar Lúðvíksson reminds the public that the hike is difficult and not for everyone. He told RÚV that many visiting the eruption last night were not carrying flashlights, though it has begun to get dark in the evenings.

Off-road driving is banned at the site, as everywhere else in Iceland. Several individuals were fined for off-road driving near the eruption yesterday.

Not for children

Those who do visit the eruption need to be particularly aware of the risk of gas poisoning. Authorities advise visitors to avoid bringing children, who are more sensitive to toxic gases and more prone to poisoning, as heavy toxic gases collect closer to the ground. The same is true of pets such as dogs.

Calm weather is forecast at the site later today, meaning that gas will likely collect in low-lying areas. Gas measuring equipment will be installed at the eruption site tomorrow.