The volcano is experiencing new activity after 800 years without erupting. Since January 21, the Reykjanes peninsula south-west of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, has experienced over 8,000 earthquakes and about 10cm of land uplift due to subterranean magma intrusions.
Dave McGarvie, a volcanologist at Lancaster University, said: “It seems that after being relatively inactive for many centuries, this region is waking up.”
The affected area is located near the town of Grindavík and the popular Blue Lagoon thousands of tourists visit ever year, as well as being nine miles away from Iceland’s international airport.
Although the volcano has not erupted in about 800 years there have been more recent eruptions offshore.
Geological studies show the area is surrounded by five volcanic systems, which become active at the same time roughly every 1,000 years.
Typical Icelandic volcanoes wake for a few years and then die down.
Contrarily, this particular region can have on and off eruptions for up to 300 years.
The eruptive episodes (known in Iceland as “fires”) last few decades.
Fissures of up to five miles splutter streams of lava, usually without much ash or many explosions.
The most recent “fires” occurred between 1210 and 1240 and covered about 19 sq miles of land in lava.
There were or more different eruptions, each lasting weeks to months, with gaps between them of up to 12 years without any activity.
Volcanic rocks travel tens of kilometres in the wind and written sources report the rockfall being an issue for livestock.
If something similar happened nowadays the Iceland GeoSurvey calculates that runways at Keflavík airport could be coated in 0.78 in of ash, causing flight to be cancelled temporarily.
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McGarvie said: “Wind direction during times of ash production is critical – anything with a slight northerly aspect is going to cause problems for the international airport and the metropolitan area of Reykjavík.”
Kristín Jónsdóttir from the Icelandic Meteorological Office commented: “The worst-case scenario is if lava flows towards the town of Grindavík.
“There is also other important infrastructure in the vicinity including a geothermal power plant.
“Hot and cold water supply may be at risk, along with roads, including the road between Reykjavík and Keflavík airport.”
While volcanic activity is not a rare occurrence in the country Icelanders are likely to be paying this volcano close attention.
McGarvie commented: “People on the Reykjanes peninsula, and their descendants for several generations, may have to be on their guard and ready to evacuate every so often.”
Small and intermittent eruptions are easier to deal with than large torrents of lava like the 1783-84 Laki eruption.
If history would repeat itself it could be catastrophic for Iceland.
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