From Iceland — Where There’s Smoke

Where There’s Smoke
Photo by
Joe Shutter
Art Bicnick

The Reykjanes peninsula’s period of volcanic activity continues

There’s something melancholic about approaching for landing at Keflavík International Airport. Perhaps that’s the pessimistic reading. The glass half empty individual sees a seemingly endless expanse of nothingness out the aeroplane window, where their more optimistic counterpart might marvel at a land like no other. Moonlike. Otherworldly.

No matter the initial reading, a first time visitor or returning inhabitant has ample time to consider their surroundings, traversing the length of Reykjanesbraut toward Reykjavík, with the rugged coastline a constant to the north and an expanse of lava fields stretching into the slopes of dwarfed mountains in the distance.

To be sure, the pessimist’s reading is the less informed. What appears to be nothing is actually everything. Young land, the remnants of mighty eruptions hundreds of years ago that split the Earth in twain and then reshaped it by spewing forth molten rock to mend its wounds. Making the mental connection between the expansive fields of cooled lava, now grown over by mosses and lichens, and the fountains of lava and curtains of fire that once exploded out of the Earth’s crust to create them hundreds of years ago is exciting. A meditation on the very ground beneath us that rarely warrants second thought.

Even more exciting is the realisation that the route from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík traverses four of the Reykjanes peninsula’s volcanic systems – one of which, Fagradalsfjall, has sprung back to life in recent years, rejuvenating and reshaping the land once again.

Fagradalsfjall Awakens

Photo by Joe Shutter

The modern volcanic history of the Reykjanes peninsula began in December 2019, when earthquakes became more and more common, centred in the area around Fagradalsfjall, a tuya volcano that, at that time, had laid dormant for over 6,000 years.

As the COVID-19 pandemic ground the world to a halt in 2020 and emptied Iceland of tourists, the quakes continued sporadically, registering like brief jolts to those in the capital region, but roiling on as stronger rumbles for residents of Grindavík, a town of 3,300 people located along the southern coast of the Reykjanes peninsula.

What’s happening on the Reykjanes peninsula is what is normal for the volcanic and tectonic activity on the peninsula. It is following basically the same general pattern that it has actively done in the past.

By the end of February, 2021, the ongoing seismic activity was increasing in frequency. The three weeks that followed would see the area rocked by 40,000 earthquakes measuring up to a magnitude of 5.7. Scientists predicted the increased activity was the result of a dyke intrusion, allowing magma to rise and collect underground. Surely enough, on March 19, 2021, the earthquakes ceased and an eruption began in the Fagradalsfjall volcanic system. Lava spewed into the air in great fountains, pooling in Geldinadalir valley, first from a single fissure, but soon from six distinct cracks in the Earth. The glow from the volcano lit up the night sky, casting its sinister orange light onto the underside of the cloud cover.

Unlike the infamous eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in April 2010, which sent thick clouds of volcanic ash high into the atmosphere, resulting in the grounding of planes throughout Europe, the 2021 eruption of Geldingadalsgos proved not only travel-friendly, but a tourism magnet, drawing visitors back to pandemic-era Iceland like moths to a flame. It attracted Icelanders, too, with a quarter of the population making the trek to the eruption site in the first two months of the eruption.

By the time the eruption ended, on September 28, 2021, it had produced 151 million m3 of lava, creating a new lava field measuring 4.8 km2.

Less than a year after Geldingadalsgos petered out, a familiar rumbling began to shake the peninsula once again. Mercifully, the seismic activity this time was brief, lasting from July 30 to August 3, 2022 – though 10,000 earthquakes struck in that timeframe. They were heralding in a new, 360 m long fissure in Meradalir to the northeast of the eruption that preceded it just a year earlier. The eruption, though equally spectacular for visitors, was short-lived. Ending Aug. 21.

Welcome To The Fagradalsfjall Fires

On July 10, 2023, after several days of seismic activity, lava breached the surface once again at Litli-Hrútur, just northeast of the previous two eruptions.

We’re seeing the start of one of these shorter, very intense volcanically active periods, which we would call a fire. These are “The Fagradalsfjall Fires.”

“What’s happening on the Reykjanes peninsula is what is normal for the volcanic and tectonic activity on the peninsula,” Þorvaldur Þórðarson, a professor in volcanology and petrology at the University of Iceland, told the Grapevine. “It is following basically the same general pattern that it has actively done in the past.”

The most recent volcanic past for the peninsula are the Reykjanes Fires that took place from roughly the year 950 to 1240. During that period of activity, several volcanic fissures opened in the Reykjanes and the Eldvörp-Svartsengi volcanic systems, producing significant lava flow. In fact, roughly 50 km2 of the peninsula was covered with a fresh layer of lava during that period of activity. Just east of that event, the Krýsuvík Fires took place in the 12th century, opening volcanic fissures in the Krýsuvík area of the Reykjanes peninsula, which remains a hot spot, luring visitors to its bubbling mud pits.

The reason for the waxing and waning activity on the peninsula comes down to its geographic location. The Reykjanes peninsula straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the meeting point where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. Or rather, where they’re pulling away from each other at a rate of around two centimetres per year.

“They’re moving at a slight angle to the main movement of the plates,” Þorvaldur explained. “And this means that the southern part of Reykjanes peninsula is sliding towards the east and, and the northern part of it is sliding to the west. Because it’s oblique, there’s a slight opening related to that activity that actually creates space for magma to rise towards the surface. So when the plates move, you open up a pathway for the magma – which is stored deep down below the surface – to move towards the surface.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Just as the movement of tectonic plates happens in starts and stops, so too does the seismic and volcanic activity resulting from that movement. As Þorvaldur tells it, volcanic activity happens in episodes. “So we have these periods of no volcanic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula – and those happen to be about 800 to 1000 years long. The quiet periods are separated by a period which is very active where you have a lot of eruptions taking place. And those periods usually last for 300 to 400 years.

“We call these periods – the shorter periods of very frequent activity – ‘volcanic fires’ because they consist of a number of eruptions, not just one. That’s what we are seeing right now. We’re seeing the start of one of these shorter, very intense volcanically active periods, which we would call a fire. These are ‘The Fagradalsfjall Fires.’”

So this could be the start of hundreds of years of activity, a geological time frame that Þorvaldur likens to mere seconds in our concept of time.

Updating Our Understanding of Reykjanes

As earthquakes began rocking the Reykjanes peninsula again in early July, 2023, the Icelandic Met Office’s measurements of land inflation in the area sparked a conversation that could reframe how we’ve been thinking about the volcanic systems in the area.

From west to east, the volcanic systems along the Reykjanes peninsula and into the mainland of Iceland are Reykjanes, Eldvörp-Svartstengi, Fagradalsfjall, Krýsuvík, Brennisteinsfjöll and Hengill. The Reykjanes Fires hundreds of years ago saw chains of eruptions occurring in the Reykjanes and Eldvörp-Svartstengi systems. Now the eruptions are centred on the next system to the east, with each year seeing fissures opening farther east than the last.

While these systems had been considered separate, with individual magma storage zones deep in the Earth, the recent Met office readings indicate that might not be the case.

In fact, GPS data is showing that the entirety of the Reykjanes peninsula has been inflating since April, 2023, not only the area associated with the Fagradalsfjall volcanic system. This could indicate that the entire peninsula is actually a singular system, fed by a single magma storage chamber – one large volcano that is now in an eruptive cycle.

“If you have a really widespread rise of the land, then you must be injecting enough material to cause that rise,” Þorvaldur said. “You push liquid into a void just like you’d push air into a balloon and the more air you put in the balloon, the more it swells. The same applies to a volcano. So if what the Met office informed us about is correct – that there is a really widespread inflation going across the peninsula – that means that the storage zone that has been filled is probably of the same magnitude or the same scale as the peninsula. And if that is correct, then the whole magma system on the Reykjanes peninsula is connected to this one big storage zone somewhere deep in the Earth.”

The idea of the Reykjanes peninsula being fed by one massive volcanic system isn’t surprising to those who have been studying the chemical composition of lava from eruptions in the region centuries ago. “If you look at the chemical composition of the magma that has erupted at different points on the Reykjanes peninsula,” Þorvaldur explained, “they’re all more or less the same and they’re all related. It would be easy to interpret the results of the geochemistry that all of that magma came from a single source.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

To paint the picture more clearly, Þorvaldur explains that the volcanoes on the Reykjanes peninsula are essentially like a row of houses along a street. While it was once thought that each house had its own dedicated drainage system, all the houses are actually connected by the same municipal sewage system… but in reverse, with the sewage coming up rather than going down.

Feeling The Heat

While scientists like Þorvaldur are experiencing a scientific jackpot with the arrival of this new eruptive period, civil protection authorities and search and rescue teams are swamped, faced with the impossible task of wrangling hordes of lookie-loos determined to feel the heat of the lava on their faces.

“It’s easy to tell everybody to go and see some beautiful eruption, but the tasks of Civil Protection are big because we know there are people of all kinds, all kinds,” said Hjördís Guðmundsdóttir, communication manager for the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

Hjördís has been busy since before the eruption began on July 10, first asking people to stay away from the area as an eruption was considered imminent and then communicating safety and closure information to Icelandicers and tourists eager to see an eruption up close.

The danger occurs when people want to get as close as possible.

“Mostly people are following the rules and they know what to do and not to do,” Hjördís said. “But you could say there are always black sheep in a group like this. That’s maybe our biggest challenge.”

You just look at what they’re doing and you go, “what the fuck!?”

Hjördís goes on to explain that on the evening of July 12, more than 100 people were photographed walking on the newly hardened lava, with some walking on it toward the lava vents.

“We see a lot of people just climbing up on the walls of the volcano, on the lava that was liquid and running a day or two ago,” exclaimed Jón Þór Víglundsson, a representative of the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, or Landsbjörg. “It is still 1000 degrees just a few centimetres below the black surface. We are really afraid that this is the eruption that someone will perish at. We didn’t have as many tourists during the last two eruptions. Now we do and it just … some people …” Jón Þór hesitated, looking for the diplomatic way to complete his sentence. “I’ll just say it – it’s stupid. You just look at what they’re doing and you go, ‘what the fuck?’”

Both Hjördís and Jón Þór underscored the fact that people who walk out on the newly hardened lava and find themselves in trouble will not be rescued. Jón Þór called is a kamikaze mission, while Hjördís explained that search and rescue volunteers are not going to put their own lives in danger.

Photo by Art Bicnick

It is a numbers game for authorities on the ground at the eruption and the Landsbjörg volunteers trying to keep people safe. While tourism in Iceland was rather low in 2021 and 2022, foreign visitors have now returned to pre-pandemic numbers. Some 2.1 million tourists are expected to visit Iceland in 2023. However, the number of Landsbjörg volunteers and the number of police able to be dispatched to patrol the eruption site hasn’t increased in line with the potential number of people clambering to see the eruption.

The behaviour being exhibited by some tourists visiting the eruption site isn’t new in Iceland. It’s only playing out in a new location. Dating back to the initial boom years of tourism in Iceland, the media was constantly reporting on tourists stepping over the short rope lining the walking path at Gullfoss, venturing out onto the slippery cliffsides. It still happens to this day that visitors to Reynisfjara beach venture too close to the water – the site of unpredictable sneaker waves – despite ample signage warning them against it.

“Just because there’s not a fence doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Hjördís said. “That’s maybe the top 1, 2 and 3 on the list of advice for visitors to keep in mind.”

Hjördís points to problematic behaviour as one factor in the authorities’ decision to close the eruption site to visitors on July 13 until at least July 15. “That was one of the reasons the police decided to close the area,” she said, “as well as the pollution.”

“We know not everybody will listen, but most people do.”

The pollution from this eruption has been greater than that produced by the 2021 and 2022 eruptions. Not only is the volcano producing potentially lethal carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, but the eruption is happening in an area that is lush with mosses and lichens, setting off wildfires.

Just because there’s not a fence doesn’t mean it’s safe. That’s maybe top 1, 2 and 3 on the list of advice for visitors to keep in mind.

“Usually when we have wildfires in Iceland, which is not very common, the area is locked,” Hjördís said. “Nobody is allowed to go into the area of a wildfire except for the people trying to contain it or put it out. So now we have wildfires and an eruption that people really want to see, so it’s even more of a challenge to lock down the area.”

In It for the Long Haul

What started in 2020 and 2021 as almost a novelty – earthquakes heralding the arrival of an eruption in an area at once remote and remarkably accessible from the capital region – has now become routine. With three eruptions in three years, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a fresh period of “fires” in the youngest corner of Iceland. What happens next from a geologic or volcanic perspective is pure conjecture. Scientists can follow hot zones and gas emissions, but when an eruption begins seems to be less of a science than a best-guess scenario.

“My view of it is we’re going to have a series of eruptions in the vicinity of Fagradalsfjall for the next decade,” Þorvaldur said “Whether other systems kick in during that time frame, it’s hard to say – they can, there’s no specific rule that applies to the order of how these things erupt in reality.”

There’s no telling how long the current eruption at Litli-Hrútur will last and there’s no saying when or where the next one in the period of volcanic activity will begin. But two things are for sure: the Reykjanes peninsula is an exciting place and you should absolutely not walk on the lava.

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