Iceland Volcano Spews Lava in Fourth and Most Powerful Eruption in Three Months

Officials detected signs of an eruption only 40 minutes before fountains of lava burst from the ground

lava erupting and flowing from a long fissure
Lava erupts from a nearly two-mile-long fissure on Iceland's Reykjanes Peninsula in the fourth eruption for the region since December. Almannavarnadeild / Handout / Anadolu via Getty Images

One of Earth’s northernmost countries is again facing fountains and flows of lava, as a volcanic system in southern Iceland erupts for the fourth time since December. Though scientists knew another eruption was brewing, the signs of this weekend’s activity came with only minutes of warning.

Semi-molten rock had been accumulating for weeks beneath the Reykjanes Peninsula, where a volcanic system recently awoke from a dormant period that had lasted some 815 years. The region experienced an eruption three years ago, followed by one each month this past December, January and February.

But the volcano gave “little notice” before its fourth recent eruption, the most powerful yet in the latest sequence, the New York Times’ Egill Bjarnason and Yan Zhuang report. Beginning just after 8:00 p.m. local time Saturday, the blast opened a nearly two-mile-long fissure between two mountains, close to the same size and location as February’s event. Local monitoring services detected a possible eruption only about 40 minutes before it began, and the Icelandic Meteorological Office sent its first public warnings just 15 minutes before the Earth started spewing lava.

“The eruption was quite energetic, and there was a lot of material coming out, more than in the previous eruption,” Halldor Geirsson, an associate professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland, tells Reuters. “So, lava was flowing quite fast.”

Aerial footage shows Icelandic volcano erupting

The coastal town of Grindavik, which has repeatedly been evacuated since tremors began in the fall, is only a few kilometers southwest of the newest fissure. Saturday night’s rapid lava flows had slowed to a steady trickle by Sunday morning, but the molten rock nonetheless reached Grindavik’s eastern wall of defense. Icelandic police declared a state of emergency for the area over the weekend, and the town’s 3,800 residents—along with visitors to the Blue Lagoon, a popular tourist spa nearby—have been evacuated.

Despite the eruption slowing down, officials have said the lava bed still contains “pools” that could rupture and flow.

“This is primarily a concern for the people who are there in the area,” Kristín Jónsdóttir, head of the volcanology department at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, tells the Icelandic national broadcaster RÚV’s Darren Adam. “We are not seeing any very large lava lakes or anything like that, but this is just one of the things that needs to be monitored.”

Lava from latest Iceland volcano eruption flows toward evacuated town

As of Monday, less than 820 feet separated the lava’s edge from Suðurstrandarvégur, the region’s main road, though officials say they think the road will be safe, reports the Iceland Monitor. The lava also approached just 650 feet from the main pipeline carrying water from the Svartsengi geothermal power plant into town as of Sunday. The power plant, which provides about 30,000 people on the Reykjanes Peninsula with water and electricity, has been operated remotely since the first eruption and protected with dykes, writes the Guardian’s Jon Henley.

Local officials are also tracking the lava’s possible flow toward the sea—if the hot lava reaches the much-cooler ocean, it could spur minor explosions and create a toxic haze of steam and lava fumes known as “laze.”

As disaster relief teams and regional officials continue to respond and plan for the area’s future, the winter’s eruptions have also provided scientists with a new understanding of southern Iceland’s geologic history.

Recent studies have shown unexpected chemical similarities between the lava from each eruption. “Volcanoes pop up in different places—they’re not supposed to talk to each other,” Edward Marshall, a geochemist at the University of Iceland, told Smithsonian magazine’s Maya Wei-Haas last month.

Scientists suggest the system may be deeply connected, with magma being shared underground—and that a new period of regional volcanic activity may be only beginning.

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