By the time you read this, a volcano may have erupted in Reykjanes, Iceland’s southwestern peninsula and the home of the Keflavík International Airport. It’s also possible that the magma currently moving under the surface of the Earth has retreated, or that it’s still moving but hasn’t breached the surface yet. At this point, all we have are best estimates. That’s just the nature of the science of earthquakes and volcanoes.
While all of Iceland is geologically active, this is a story about Reykjanes, whose name literally means “smoking peninsula”, if that gives you any indication of just how active the area is. Here, we examine a timeline that begins on February 23rd, when a series of significant earthquakes began to ripple through the area, culminating in the first signs, on March 3rd, that a volcanic eruption may be on the way. From here, we’ll look at best case—and worst case—scenarios. The good news is there’s little to worry about. The bad news is things are still up in the air; at least, at the time of this writing.
How active are we talking about?
First time arrivals to Iceland almost always disembark at Keflavík International Airport, and then drive or take the bus on to Reykjavík. Along the way, the first thing you notice are the immense lava fields which stretch all the way to the horizon. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this lava only cooled down moments ago for how fresh it appears, and geologically speaking, it is quite fresh. The area is fed by five volcanic systems—striking considering its relatively small size—and much of the lava we see there today came from the notorious Reykjanes Fires, which last from the 10th to the 12th century. In fact, between 1210 and 1240, some 50 square kilometres of this region was covered in lava.
The first indications that we were entering a new period of instability arguably began in January 2020, when a swarm of earthquakes were measured around Mt. Þorbjörn, one of Reykjanes’ many volcanoes. At the time, there were grave concerns that an eruption was imminent, but ultimately nothing came of it, and after a week or so, the volcano fell off the radar. While Mt. Þorbjörn is no longer in the current discussion, Reykjanes certainly is.
How it kicked off
In the early morning hours of February 23rd, a 4.3 magnitude quake 7km beneath the surface and 3.6km east of Fagradalsfjall struck. This was followed seconds later by a 5.7 quake near Keilir. Since then, earthquakes of a magnitude of 3 or greater have been a daily occurence. Reykjanes is geologically active relative to the rest of the country, but the size and frequency of these quakes has raised concerns nonetheless. Not so much in terms of devastation—Icelandic infrastructure, including homes and buildings, are famously designed with earthquakes in mind, and the safest place you can be in Iceland during an earthquake is indoors—but more in terms of what these events could be a prologue for.
On March 3rd, scientists announced that it was increasingly likely that a volcanic eruption was on the way. This was based on GPS measurements and other data points that indicated magma was moving very quickly beneath the surface of the Earth in relatively the same area the earthquakes were centered.
Iceland’s earth scientists are normally very reluctant to speculate on the possibility of a volcanic eruption, even in the midst of an earthquake swarm, so just the fact that they were using language such as “increasingly likely” drew international attention.
The quiet science (until it isn’t)
The science of earthquakes and volcanoes is normally a quiet affair, some might even say repetitive, the vast majority of the time. This sentiment was echoed by Baldur Bergsson, a specialist in monitoring at the Icelandic Met Office, when the Grapevine tagged along with him to Reykjanes in July 2020.
“My first project was to map out the gas-emitting areas around Hekla, and I don’t know how many hours I spent at this,” Baldur recalled. “Putting an instrument on the ground, waiting a minute and a half, picking it up and walking ten steps, and doing it again. But now we know where the gas-emitting places are. It just took 22 trips to the summit of Hekla.”
Most of his job entails exactly that: laying down instruments, taking measurements, and submitting them to the general data base.
“It’s a lot of repetition,” he said with a laugh. “But that’s science. These readings will probably give the same results as last week, but we’ll never know unless we try, again and again and again.”
Not so quiet anymore
As readers are aware, the situation is anything but boring right now. The earthquakes and possible eruption in Reykjanes have made international headlines, and many people have been deeply concerned about what this could mean. Eyjafjallajökull is still fresh in people’s minds, a volcano which erupted and began to spew a gigantic ash cloud into the atmosphere in March 2010, crippling air traffic across the European continent. For the record, there is no danger of that happening if an eruption happens in Reykjanes—the peninsula tends to have effusive eruptions; mostly lava plumes but very little ash—and there are a few things we can safely predict about what an eruption in the area would look like.
“The volcanic systems here on the Reykjanes peninsula, the eruptions in these systems are fissure eruptions,” Kristín Jónsdóttir, earthquake hazards coordinator at the Icelandic Met Office, told Grapevine’s Reykjavík Newscast on March 4th, the day after scientists announced an eruption was now more likely. “It’s essentially cracks opening and the magma coming up. There’s very little ash. The good thing about this scenario is that, what we’ve seen so far, is that they’re far from the roads and far from the populated areas. So if we model the system of the magma flowing, it is not going to reach the populated areas and it’s not going to reach the roads. As the situation is now, from our modelling, this is what we presume.”
Þorvaldur Þórðarson, a professor of volcanology and petrology at the University of Iceland, echoed these sentiments in a separate interview with the Grapevine, when asked how scientists determine just how dangerous an eruption may or may not be.
“We use a lot of different tools for that,” he said. “First of all, we use geological history and our knowledge of previous events. When we look at any one area, we think in terms of worst case scenarios. When we know that, we start to think about ‘OK, what measures do we need to put in place to make sure that people are safe? And what measures can we put in place in terms of response?'”
Þorvaldur cited the eruption of Öræfajökull, describing it as a very explosive eruption. “If you’re there, you don’t have any response time. So our assessment in that case is, if you suspect there’s an eruption imminent, you evacuate the whole place and get everyone to safety. That’s quite a dramatic and drastic measure, but that’s the best we can do at the moment anyway.
“In Reykjanes, it’s quite different, because we know from the history of eruptions here that most of those eruptions are fairly moderate in size, and they’re mostly effusive, or lava-producing, eruptions. Our main concern there is not the explosive activity but the lava flow activity. We need to know how much time we have in a lava flow crisis and that, of course, depends on where the lava comes up relative to populated areas or important infrastructure. In a nutshell, we use the worst case scenario to make sure we have the right response to ensure everyone’s safety.”
It’s a gas
Of course, lava is not the only danger that can arise from an eruption. They also release toxic gases, especially sulphur dioxide, also called SO2.
“For populated areas around the region where a possible eruption could occur, we do not need to worry [about gas] in particular,” Kristín told us. “From our modelling—and again, we are using the models based on the best knowledge of what kinds of eruptions we can expect in the area, and our knowledge from previous eruptions—the gas we are concerned about is SO2 [sulphur dioxide]. It’s not very nice. It can hurt a bit in the throat. The concentrations we can expect here will not be that dense, and also where we are farther away from the lava, it gets diluted. So the most probable scenario is that there will be days where this will be annoying. People with underlying conditions, such as asthma, will have to take care of themselves. Importantly, the Icelandic Met Office will show gas pollution forecasts. It depends on the wind. We’ll just have to take it one day at a time.”
“For an average eruption of an average duration, the level of pollution could [become] uncomfortable for people,” Þorvaldur told the Grapevine. “For a big eruption, it may reach a level where you would have to react to it and move people away from the area. Gas pollution is an issue, but how big of an issue it is really depends on the scenario, and if you have a very long lasting eruption—which we can have on the Reykjanes peninsula, we’ve had eruptions there that have lasted many months, years and even decades—depending on your position relative to the event, that may cause major problems. Then again, the likelihood of such events happening in our lifetime is very, very small.”
When asked about how an eruption could affect drinking water or geothermal energy—which relies on underground water heated by magma to turn turbines—Kristín also assuaged fears.
“I think all the scientists are looking into this,” she said. “Right now, there isn’t a great concern about this. The main drinking water does not come from this area.”
How can we know?
Despite lurid headlines that you might see elsewhere—such as any particular volcano being “overdue” for an eruption—volcano science is still in large part based on history, predictive models and best estimations. Even with all of our advanced technology, knowing when a volcano may erupt is still not exactly pinpoint accurate. How come?
Þorvaldur uses meteorology as a comparison. He points out that studying the weather began centuries ago, but that the first weather map wasn’t published until the late 19th century. This developed into weather forecasts in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that we even began to be able to accurately predict, to the minute, when a storm might touch down in a particular area.
“What we try to do in the field of volcanology is a similar thing; to be able to forecast eruptions,” he says. “We started trying to do that in the early years of the 20th century, so we’ve only been able to work on this for just over 100 years. We don’t have daily observations, because volcanoes are not erupting daily. We get very few events that we can actually observe. We have to use remote sensing techniques, using tools that will hopefully give us information on what’s happening in the Earth.”
It’s a bit like trying to measure the movement of clouds based on secondary data.
“Earthquakes are not property of the magma,” Þorvaldur continues. “They’re a consequence of a stress build up in the crust. We don’t see the magma move. You can see the clouds move, and we try to do the same thing [with magma], but with far less clarity. That’s one of the reasons why we haven’t yet gotten to the point where we can forecast or even predict volcanic eruptions. Each eruption, which is basically our laboratory, is very useful for that purpose. That’s why we want to learn as much as we can from each event. We’d like to be able to have such exercises every day, but it’s not possible, because nature doesn’t work on that timescale.”
Another thing to bear in mind is the massive timescales we’re dealing with when it comes to volcanoes.
“The timescales of individual systems are different,” Þorvaldur says. “Hekla erupts very often. Volcanoes on the Reykjanes peninsula go into this stage of unrest and eruption every 800 years or so, and that period can last some 200 to 400 years. It’s episodic. It’s not a constant unrest. You can have a period of unrest that lasts for a few months and then it calms down, and you repeat that over a period of two or three decades, and then it goes quiet for 70 or 80 years, and then it picks up again.”
“For us, it’s a very long period of time,” he points out. “For the volcano, it’s an instant. It’s on a totally different timescale. It’s both fascinating and difficult to grasp, this long timescale. Especially when volcanoes, when they actually kick in, then they switch gears and everything is happening one-two-three. When the processes kick in, there are processes happening over milliseconds to determine if you’re going to have an explosion eruption or an effusion eruption. This is the challenge of studying volcanoes.”
What’s the worst that could happen?
Despite assurances from Kristín and Þorvaldur that if an eruption happens, it will very likely not be a devastating event, Þorvaldur was nonetheless quite willing to discuss what the worst case scenario for a Reykjanes eruption could be.
“In terms of danger to the population, let’s just make an assumption that we have an eruption site where if lava comes up it will flow towards a populated area,” he says. “In terms of Reykjanes peninsula, the worst case scenario is we would get a very strong fountaining eruption at the very beginning, which would produce lava flows that would move at very high speeds downslope, on the order of 30 to 60 kilometres per hour. In that case, if you look at the peninsula, the distance from an eruption site to a populated area is on the order of five to 15 kilometres. The response time then would be around one to three hours. If you take an average eruption, the response time would be three to ten days or so. But the worst case scenario I’m describing would be a very unusual event. However, even in those cases we would have time to respond. That’s the important thing. You may not be able to save a lot of your things, but you would definitely be able to get away from it.”
So we would have plenty of time to evacuate people from an eruption area in Reykjanes. But where would these people go?
“It’s very unlikely that a fissure will open up and cut off all roads,” he says. “There would always be route out. You may have to go the long way around in some cases, and maybe go to Keflavík and that area. Lava is never going to go there. That would be an eruption of dimensions that we have never seen in Iceland. Let’s say you were in Vogar or Grindavík, and you get cut off from going towards Reykjavík, you can always go towards Keflavík and you would be safe over there. Of course, we can’t rule out that we would have a megaeruption on the peninsula, but that’s very, very unlikely. Even then, you would have boats to get everyone out.”
Never fear, Civic Protection is here
Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, spokesperson for the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, is a part of the team that would be key to these evacuations. In the same Reykjavík Newscast where we spoke with Kristín, Rögnvaldur was optimistic.
“I think we’re pretty safe,” he said. “We have good modelling and we know what we’re dealing with. We know what kinds of eruptions we can have and roughly where. All the infrastructure is designed to withstand these kinds of quakes. We do not expect buildings to collapse. You might see some fractures in some buildings, but total collapse of buildings is not something we expect to see. The experience can be unnerving, because it’s not something you can do anything about and the whole earth is shaking, but there’s basically nothing to worry about.”
To Rögnvaldur, this is all a part of the job.
“Basically when you break it down, it’s the same situation,” he said. “You can even compare it to what we do regarding COVID-19. We’re quite used to dealing with situations like this. But of course, it’s always a challenge [to have this possible eruption site] close to the largest populated area in Iceland. But we haven’t seen anything in the modelling or predictions that are great cause for concern. Just like with COVID-19, as soon as we know something we give that information to the public. So you don’t have to worry that there’s something we’re not telling you.”
Fund your scientists!
As the situation is now, Kristín says, we’re all doing our best with what we have.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty at this moment,” she told the Newscast. “We have to follow the data and make sense of what’s happening. We are doing our best to include the best scientists to work on this and come up with a consensus of the most likely scenarios. But we just have to wait and see.”
For his part, Þorvaldur believes the science of volcano prediction will only get better.
“We have to integrate systems that are measuring the geophysical side of things, with petrological measurements, along with volcanological measurements and data,” he told us. “It has to be an integrated thing. Remote sensing might play a very important role in that, especially when we can get better at looking at deformation using satellite based observations. I think satellite measurements, in the end, might be the key to reliable eruption predictions, just like they’ve been the key to reliable weather forecasts.”
One would expect that for a geologically active island nation like Iceland that earth scientists would have all the money they need. When asked if this was the case, Þorvaldur was quite clear.
“Oh, absolutely not. We never get enough funding,” he told the Grapevine. “Of course we want more money! The truth is, and it’s sad to say as it’s true for many other places as well, science is generally underfunded. We appreciate the things that we get and we are generally not complaining too much, but I think society would benefit from investing in scientific research in general because it is the cheapest way of preventing harmful things that may affect us.”
Surely members of parliament would want to make sure that volcanologists have all the money we need, right?
“Absolutely,” Þorvaldur says. “Earth sciences in general and volcanology in particular have been struggling to get funding over the last five years. There’s many different reasons for that, and one important part of that is how they set up who gets funded or not and another part is that we haven’t looked well enough after our own interests. There’s always two sides to everything. [The current situation] is a good exercise for us in the response time, but is also a good reminder for the community that lives in the Reykjanes peninsula that they do live on an active volcano, and you should take that into account when you’re planning things.”
All this being the case, perhaps the current situation will remind those holding the purse strings that the earth sciences in Iceland are crucial to our survival. However the current situation plays out, that much should be abundantly clear by now.
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