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Icelandic volcano erupts, missing local town for now (Updated)

a volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts in grindavik
A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts in Grindavik, Iceland, December 18, 2023. Civil Protection of Iceland/Handout via REUTERS

Lava from a large volcanic eruption in Iceland appeared to flow away from the only town in the area, offering hope that homes and lives would be spared even though the seismic activity could last months, officials said on Tuesday.

The government said flights were unlikely to be affected, quashing international travel concerns lingering after the chaos that resulted from the ash cloud caused by an eruption on the north Atlantic island in 2010.

The eruption late on Monday on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwest Iceland spewed lava and smoke more than 100 metres (330 feet) into the air after weeks of intense seismic activity.

“The eruption does not present a threat to life,” an Icelandic government statement said.

“There are no disruptions to flights to and from Iceland and international flight corridors remain open.”

Authorities last month evacuated the nearly 4,000 inhabitants of the fishing town of Grindavik about 40 km (25 miles) southwest of capital city Reykjavik.

Live footage of the eruption shown by Reuters and others showed bright yellow, orange and red lava in sharp contrast against the sky.

The eruption opened a 4 km (2.5 mile) fissure from which lava fountains emerged. But at its southernmost point the crack was still 3 km away from Grindavik, Iceland’s Meteorological Office said.

“The eruption is taking place north of the watershed, so lava does not flow towards Grindavik,” geologist Bjorn Oddson told public broadcaster RUV.

 

FLIGHT DISRUPTION UNLIKELY

Located between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, among the largest on the planet, Iceland is a seismic and volcanic hot spot because the two plates move in opposite directions.

The eruption is happening about 30 km from Reykjavik. Keflavik international airport is somewhat nearer but remains open and closer still is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa popular with tourists. It has been largely closed since the current seismic activity was detected.

“It could potentially go on for several months, it could also just stop later today or tomorrow,” said Halldor Geirson, an associate professor at Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland.

Lava flows had decreased from 200-250 cubic meters per second in the first two hours of the eruption to around a quarter of that by Tuesday morning.

Geirson said the current location of the eruption looked to be fortunate with most of the lava flowing into an area where there was little infrastructure. But that could still change.

“There is still a threat to Grindavik, for sure. Now the lava is flowing mostly to the north, but it depends on the topography and where the openings are,” he said.

In 2010, ash clouds from eruptions at the Eyafjallajokull volcano in the south of Iceland spread over large parts of Europe, grounding some 100,000 flights in Europe and beyond, and forcing hundreds of Icelanders to evacuate their homes.

Weather forecasting service AccuWeather said in a statement that the current eruption was very different from the one at Eyafjallajokull and that preliminary information suggested it would not have a major impact on air travel.

“If little to no volcanic ash is lofted into the atmosphere, there may be no impact to aviation,” AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jon Porter said.

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