A volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwestern Iceland began erupting Monday after thousands of warning earthquakes shook the region for weeks. During the initial eruption, which started at 10:17 p.m. local time, lava shot more than 330 feet into the air, with some 3,530 to 7,060 cubic feet of molten rock emerging per second.
“It was crazy to see it with my own eyes. We have had volcano explosions before, but this was the first time I got really scared,” Aoalheiour Halldorsdottir, who lives about 12 miles from the nearby town of Grindavík, tells BBC News’ Oliver Slow and Marita Moloney. “We’re used to volcanoes [erupting], but this was crazy.”
This marks the fourth and largest eruption in the area since 2021, with its initial fissure opening stretching about 2.5 miles long. The volcanic activity presents no threat to human life or infrastructure at this time, and no flight interruptions are expected to or from the country. About 4,000 people have been evacuated from Grindavík since November in anticipation of the event.
Currently, the volcanic plume is drifting from the west and northwest, which may bring gas pollution to other areas, including the capital city of Reykjavík, per the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
“Iceland’s authorities are well prepared for seismic events, which occur regularly as a feature of our country’s natural geography,” the Iceland government writes in a statement.
Volcanic eruptions on Iceland are quite common. The island sits along a tectonic plate boundary that separates the North American from the Eurasian Plate. As these plates spread apart, magma wells to the surface and produces enormous volcanic eruptions of basalt, per NOAA. The volcanoes along this boundary are part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a roughly 10,000-mile-long mountain chain that lies mostly underwater. Iceland is one of the only places in the world where the ridge is visible above sea level.
The island hosts 130 total volcanoes, 33 of which are active. The most disruptive recent eruption occurred in 2010, when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano emitted a huge volume of ash that led to widespread disruptions in air travel around Western Europe, per the Associated Press (AP).
Check out this video from the Icelandic coast guard who flew along where the volcano in erupting outside of Grindavik Iceland. pic.twitter.com/8xfxsfoAgd— Kevin Lighty - WCIA 3 Chief Meteorologist (@KevinLighty) December 19, 2023
As of Tuesday morning, volcanic activity had subsided, with lava flow about a quarter of what it was Monday night and a third of the original fissure still active. Still, Matthew Watson, a volcanologist and climatologist at the University of Bristol in England, warns tourists against trying to witness the eruption, report David Keyton and Marco Di Marco of the AP. The lava flows are only a few kilometers away from the Blue Lagoon complex, a geothermal spa and major tourist attraction.
“As is common with this eruptive style, it began with a sustained eruption of ballistics that, over time, has lengthened to form a fire curtain—a long fissure out of which lava is being violently ejected,” Watson tells the publication. “This style of eruption is amongst the most spectacular ever seen, and there will be a strong pull for tourists, even though the Blue Lagoon complex has again shut.”
Given the risk of gas pollution, however, other experts agree that tourists should resist that pull. As Vidir Reynisson, head of Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection, told a local television station: “This is no tourist eruption.”