Iceland Volcano Erupts Again, Cutting Off Hot Water From Towns and Spewing Fountains of Lava

This marks the third eruption since December in a region that, prior to 2021, hadn’t seen volcanic activity for centuries

People in silhouette standing in front of a tall plume of smoke
People watch Thursday's volcanic eruption in Iceland. The Icelandic Meteorological Office said Friday afternoon local time that there were no more signs of eruptive activity. Kristinn Magnusson / AFP via Getty Images

A volcano on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula has erupted for the third time since December in a new period of activity that experts say appears poised to continue.

Tens of thousands of residents lost heating and hot water amid Iceland’s winter, as lava covered a pipe that carries hot water from a power plant to towns, prompting a state of emergency, writes the New York Times’ Egill Bjarnason and Emma Bubola.

At 5:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, intense seismic activity began northeast of the nearby Mount Sýlingarfell. Thirty minutes later, the eruption began from a fissure stretching almost two miles long, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office. As of Friday afternoon local time, the eruption appeared to be ending.

After centuries without volcanic activity in the region, “people thought this area was fairly safe,” Dave McGarvie, a volcanologist who has worked in Iceland, tells Marco Di Marco of the Associated Press (AP). “It’s been a bit of a shock that it has come back to life.”

Fissure eruptions occur along lengthy, narrow lines of breakage and feed lava flows that can travel large distances, according to the U.S. National Park Service. The eruption’s lava fountains reached between about 160 and 260 feet high, and the volcanic plume, a mixture of magmatic gases like volcanic particles and water vapor, stretched almost two miles into the air.

Schools, gyms and swimming pools in nearby towns were closed due to the loss of heat and hot water, and officials evacuated guests from the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. The town of Grindavík, the closest population center to the volcano, had already been evacuated before the most recent January eruption, and residents had not returned yet, per the New York Times.

Prior to this week, the volcano had already erupted in mid-December and mid-January. The Icelandic Meteorological Office had warned last week that magma was accumulating, nearing the volume that precipitated January’s eruption and signaling that another eruption could be days or weeks away.

A drone flight around noon local time on Friday didn’t see any eruption activity, and sensors were no longer detecting volcanic tremors, pointing to the possible end of the event.

But future volcanic activity is still on the table.

“There’s no hint that there is a bigger eruption on the way; but what we do know is that magma is still flowing into the crust and being stored for a while and then occasionally bursting out in an eruption,” David Pyle, a volcanologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, tells the Washington Post’s Kasha Patel in an email. “We have now seen this same pattern since late October, and it looks like it will continue into the future.”

Lava flows and smoke billows from a fissure in the ground in the dark
Lava flows after a volcanic eruption near the town of Grindavík in Iceland early Thursday morning. The town had previously been evacuated prior to an earlier eruption. Iceland Civil Defense / Handout / Anadolu via Getty Images

While the recent eruption was unlikely to be a direct threat to Grindavík, “it could pose some threat to the road to Grindavík and it could pose some threat to the power plant and even to the Blue Lagoon,” Ari Trausti Gudmundsson, an Icelandic geophysicist, tells Reuters. Lava had spread over the exit road from the Blue Lagoon.

The activity occurred in Iceland’s West Volcanic Zone, which, until 2021, hadn’t been active since 1200, according to the Washington Post.

“It is possible (but still uncertain) that magmatic activity has shifted to the [West Volcanic Zone], and that it will experience many eruptions for decades or centuries to come,” Thomas Algeo, a geologist at the University of Cincinnati, writes in an email to the Post.

It’s unclear whether residents will ever be able to return permanently to Grindavík. “I think at the moment there is the resignation, the stoical resignation, that, for the foreseeable future, the town is basically uninhabitable,” McGarvie tells the AP.

Unndor Sigurdsson, a schoolteacher from Grindavík, tells the New York Times that he saw the recent eruption while driving to work, after watching his home get destroyed in an earlier eruption. “I feel numb at this point,” he says to the publication.

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