Following a day of intense earthquake swarms, scientists in Iceland have warned that the amount of magma is much greater than previously thought. Furthermore, magma intrusions may have begun in a new dyke beneath the town of Grindavík. Earthquake swarms shifted towards the Sundhnúkar crater, which has direct dyke connections with the nearby town. The town is currently being evacuated, and a state of emergency has been declared.
With a population of 5,000, Grindavík is a fishing village on the south shore of the Reykjanes peninsula, not far from the world-famous Blue Lagoon. Grindavík is the only town on this part of the coastline with a harbour, and this is thanks to previous volcanic lava flows. Some residents of Grindavik have already left the town because of the earthquake swarms. A few of the residents lost their homes during the 1973 eruption on the Westman Isles.
This is the second volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula this year, and the peninsula has seen frequent eruptions since the crater eruption at Geldingadalir in 2021. This eruption was just a few miles north of Grindavík and at one point, the lava flow posed a serious threat to the town as well as the coastal road.
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One sure sign that magma is ready to break through the Earth’s crust is earthquake clusters in an eruption area. The ground will lift to allow the intrusion of magma. Tremors over level three can be felt by humans and are marked with a star on the map below.
According to the Icelandic Met Office, geologists have been measuring around 800 earthquakes per day leading up to the eruption. These earthquake swarms were just north of Grindavik and very close to the Blue Lagoon, near Svartsengi and Mount Þorbjörn. The blue waters of the Blue Lagoon are heated by the Svartsengi Power Station. GPS data has seen the ground lift as much as 6 inches over the last couple of weeks.
Evacuation plans have been in place for Grindavík and the Blue Lagoon for the last few weeks. The residents have been concerned about the earthquakes because they are much closer and easier to feel than the previous, recent eruptions. Planning an evacuation when it is impossible to know where the lava will come from is a massive challenge. You have to plan for all possibilities and consider all possible escape routes.
Residents, known as “Grindavíkingar”, have reported feeling very uncomfortable with the recent swarms of earthquakes. A large earthquake shook the sports hall during an emergency resident’s meeting a few days ago.
Svartsengi Geothermal Power Station
Electricity is a major concern because of the disruption to the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Station. Emergency generators have already been prepared in Grindavík. The hot water supply has also been affected, so local residents will have to rely on a limited supply of electricity to heat their homes.
Plans are already in place to try and save the power station by spraying water onto the lava to redirect it. This method was used to save the harbour in the 1973 Westman Islands eruption. Bore holes are to be plugged with sand and gravel in the hope that they can be used after the eruption. Lava actually came up through a bore hole in North Iceland during the Kraftla eruption in 1975.
The Blue Lagoon justified staying open right up to the eruption by claiming that they could evacuate visitors quickly. Despite the warnings from Þorvaldur Þórðarson, a top volcanologist in Iceland, he claimed that the lava has the potential to flow as fast as 20 kilometers per hour, reaching the Blue Lagoon in a few minutes. The most expensive swimming pool in Europe attracts many thousands of tourists. Remaining open until the eruption has been a controversial decision, with many people complaining that they have put profits above tourist safety. Around 40 guests at the Blue Lagoon Hotel fled from the hotel in the middle of the night after a Level 5 earthquake caused rock features in the lobby to collapse. Reykjanes taxi drivers reported that people were literally running from the hotel to their taxis and were terrified.
As the situation is currently uncertain, there is an exclusion zone in place, and travellers are advised not to travel to the area until the exact nature of the volcano has been established. Toxic levels of gas can build up in low-lying areas around the eruption site, so an innocent hike could go badly wrong.