It is the stuff of nightmares—or movies starring Pierce Brosnan and Tommy Lee Jones—but it’s also a reality people living in Iceland face: the ever present danger of living on an island that’s one huge explosive volcano.
As the lava runs down the streets, desperate firefighters pump water into the fiery inferno, trying to slow it down. Thick ash covers the rooftops of houses and willing, foolhardy volunteers work as fast as they can to shovel it away. Some houses are so burdened by the black dust that they crumble under the weight, while other houses melt as they are engulfed in the lava. It’s a living nightmare, but it’s not fiction—this was the reality facing the people of Vestmannaeyjar in 1973.
For five months, a volcanic eruption stopped everything on the archipelago, and the inhabitants became refugees. And whilst there was only one casualty that time, we might not be so lucky should a similar situation occur again. The South Coast of Iceland is the area most at risk, but even Reykjavík could be in danger.
Víðir Reynisson is the man tasked with heading up the volcanic response unit for the police in South Iceland. “We have an evacuation plan for the capital,” he asserts. “Its foundations lie in the plans made during the Cold War, when there was a risk of nuclear war. Planning for these events is incredibly difficult, but we also learned a lot from the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar.”
Recently there have been earthquakes on the Reykjanes peninsula, in an area with four active volcano systems that could erupt. The site is on the Mid-Atlantic Rift, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It’s the site of many previous eruptions, and, inevitably, there will be more to come. The lava fields in Hafnarfjörður are just 1000 years old, and in the Elliðarárdalur outdoor area in Reykjavík, there is hardened lava. It is through Elliðarárdalur where lava is most likely to run, should it hit Reykjavík.
Another potential danger to the capital comes from Snæfellsjökull. This glacier volcano is far from the city, but the danger is an eruption-related tsunami. The University of Iceland’s Icelandic Web of Science has estimated that, should a 20 metre high wave hit, several neighborhoods and most of the city centre would be entirely submerged. Even our dear pineapple-hating President would be in danger, as the presidential residence would be underwater.
The panic, the chaos
But equally as worrying as the volcanoes are people. Víðir explains that one of the main risks facing an eruption close to Reykjavík is panic. When people fear for their lives and that of their families they are likely to do whatever they can to get away.
“When we make a risk assessment of a volcanic eruption we take panic and fear into the equation,” said Víðir. “We all know how the traffic is in Reykjavik during rush hour, so we can imagine how it could get when people try to leave the city in panic. The danger is for instance serious traffic accidents and it is likely that people who live in an area at risk might not accept having to wait a couple of days to ensure an orderly exit from the city.”
This means that careful consideration has to be made to avert public panic, and to be sure that it is absolutely necessary to call for an evacuation, as it might risk people’s lives more than the eruption. It might be that people need to be evacuated by sea, but for such a massive operation the Coast Guard is seriously lacking in resources. If that type of evacuation were required, as it was in Vestmanneyjar, it would be vital for the entire fishing fleet to take part. But it is unlikely that even that could save everyone.
The tourist challenge
Víðir claims that the biggest challenge in regards to volcano preparedness is notifying tourists and keeping them notified. He says that locals that live in volcanic areas where the impacts of eruptions (for instance flooding) is frequent are well aware of the dangers and know to keep up-to-date. However, most tourists are unaware
“Definitely the big challenge right now is informing tourists,” said Víðir. “Making emergency plans with the locals is easy and for the most part they know what to do, but when a new person arrives every day then it is hard to inform people. But in the case of danger we need the locals to help out and tell tourists where to go.”
The most dangerous volcanoes
Katla, Öræfajökull, Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull are the volcanoes we should worry most about. Ágúst Gunnar Gylfason from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, says we should even be so wary of Hekla that people should avoid hiking up it.
“I wouldn’t walk there, and when people ask, I advise them not to either,” says Ágúst. “An explosion in Hekla can shoot molten lava kilometres away, and the warning period can be 30-80 minutes. It’s not enough time to escape down the mountain.”
Even more of a threat than lava is the invisible threat of gas. During the Vestmannaeyjar eruption, this is what caused the only fatality. Gas is heavier than oxygen, and will therefore pour down to ground level. The best advice for such scenarios is to avoid basements—never go into the basement. In 2014, an eruption in Holuhraun sent gas spewing across the country, so just being far away from the volcano might not be enough to keep you safe.
The cycle of nightmares
In 1784, an eruption started in Lakagígar, which made the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption look like a friendly campfire. It lasted for eight months with around 120 million tons of sulphur dioxide released into the atmosphere along with an estimated 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride. The results were that 25% of the Icelandic population, 80% of sheep, 50% of cattle and 50% of horses died. A dark cloud descended over Europe causing the crop failures that helped spark the French Revolution. It is an inevitability that at some point a similar event will occur.
“We should always be worried,” finished Víðir, ominously. “It’s just a normal part of living by volcanoes. We have to respect them.”