From Iceland — So, What Happens Now? Perspectives On The Future Of The Reykjanes Peninsula

So, What Happens Now? Perspectives On The Future Of The Reykjanes Peninsula

Published January 10, 2024

So, What Happens Now? Perspectives On The Future Of The Reykjanes Peninsula
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The Earth rumbled again on the morning of January 3, strong enough to jostle my little home in 101 Reykjavík while I lazily poured water from my kettle over the coffee grounds in my French press.

“Huh, another eruption?” I pondered aloud, nonplussed. “Have we gotten too used to this?” my partner queried in return.

Though we commented on that 4.5 magnitude quake, its epicentre around Trölladyngja, not even our dog batted an eye at the 3.9 magnitude rumble that shook the house a few minutes later.

Earthquakes on the Reykjanes peninsula occasionally being felt here in the capital have been a regular occurrence since December 2019. Those first swarms of seismic activity culminated in an eruption at Fagradalsfjall on March 19, 2021. The next time the Earth really began shaking lava spewed forth at Meradalir on August 1, 2022. The same system started letting off steam again on July 10, 2023.

It is clear that the volcanic systems on the Reykjanes peninsula had awoken. But it was the Fagradalsfjall system pitching the occasional fit for the past three years, conveniently distanced from settlements or infrastructure.

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. It’s the latter that started quaking in October 2023, dangling a large question mark over the safety of the nearby town of Grindavík, the Svartsengi Power Plant and the popular tourist destination, the Blue Lagoon.

As earthquakes intensified and ground uplift was measured at Svartsengi, the Blue Lagoon decided on November 9 to temporarily close while the situation was assessed. That ultimate assessment came on Nov. 10 when a violent earthquake swarm centred itself under the town of Grindavík, necessitating the evacuation of its 3,700 residents.

A magma intrusion estimated at 15 km long had formed from the Sundhnúkagígar crater row, running southwesterly beneath Grindavík and out under the sea floor.

I think the general consensus is that we are in a similar situation as in Myvatn in 1975 to 1984, when they had a rifting event there — which actually confirmed the plate tectonics, which was a theory that was evolving at the time. Svartsengi is starting to behave very, very similarly.

An eruption eventually began at Sundhnúkagígar on December 18, initially spewing out up to 200 cubic metres of lava per second along a 4 km long fissure before petering off over the days that followed. The eruption had ended entirely by December 23.

Though Gindravík residents have been able to return home during designated hours to tend to their property and collect belongings, they remain displaced. As ground inflation continues beneath the Blue Lagoon, it remains closed.

Several volcanologists have recently compared the activity at Svartsengi to the Krafla Fires of 1975 to 1984. During that event, a large magma chamber in the Krafla caldera by Myvatn in North Iceland repeatedly filled up and, when the chamber had become pressurised, it released the magma. The result was 24 magma intrusions in nine years. Nine of those intrusions resulted in eruptions.

So what’s next for the town of Grindavík? What’s next for the Blue Lagoon and the Svartsengi Power Plant and the entire region? Here’s what experts and stakeholders have to say about it:

The Earth: Ármann Höskuldsson, Volcanologist

Right now the Rekjanes peninsula is releasing tension. So basically that will take years — decades even — from what we know about its history. But we have, of course, never been able to observe this in such a close detail as we are doing now.

There is a magma reservoir under Svartsengi Power Plant. A “magma chamber” is a major reservoir of magma, where magma changes composition, etc. And that is not the case at Svartsengi. But we know that there is a small reservoir, which is inflating and deflating. While it is inflating, it is accepting magma and the magma cannot reach the surface because the pathways are closed. Then eventually, when the pressure is high enough in that reservoir, the roof will break or the site will break and we get magma that will try to flow into the cracks that are already there. In some cases, like on December 18, it comes to the surface.

A magma chamber is a major or big reservoir that is in the crust for hundreds and thousands of years, where magma can evolve from being basalt into more rhyolitic and more explosive compositions. So there is no there is no indication of that. But we have a reservoir. We have a magma injection into the crust. But it’s not the major magma chamber.

The wall around Svartsengi is, of course, one measure that has been taken and a very vital one in order to protect the infrastructure of Svartsengi.

I think the general consensus is that we are in a similar situation as in Myvatn in 1975 to 1984, when they had a rifting event there — which actually confirmed the plate tectonics, which was a theory that was evolving at the time. Svartsengi is starting to behave very, very similarly — lots of earthquakes, lots of crust breaking and extending — which means the plate boundary is moving. And when the plates go apart, magma comes in. We see that magma is accumulating at shelval level, around four to five kilometres deep, and that is the uplift that we can measure with a GPS.

In the last eruption we got out something like six to seven million cubic metres of dense rock equivalent or dense magma equivalent. That is maybe 10% of the magma that is down there ready to go. So that is not very much.

I think we have done what we can by building these barriers around the power plant and the Blue Lagoon. What we will be seeing in the coming years are small eruptions, like the one on Dec. 18 — it was a very, very small eruption, although it was very powerful in the beginning, I would guess that we will be seeing more of those. So one, two or three eruptions per year, or something like that. But while the reservoir is that small they will never be very, very large. Then eventually the main centre of the plate boundary may start to crack and then the eruption will take place there. That would be in the area called Eldvörp, which is just west of the Blue Lagoon.

I think an eruption at Eldvörp could be bigger than what we saw in December. It is now erupting at the plate edge. I don’t think we will have any major eruption in that area, but once it comes to the centre [at Eldvorp], we will start to see larger eruptions.

The Power Plant: Birna Lárusdóttir, HS Orka Communications Officer

The Svartsengi Power Plant is fully operational and it has been so, ever since these seismic activities started in the early fall. This has actually been ongoing since the first eruption in 2021, so the entire time since this seismic period started, we have been fully operational.

This has, of course, affected our daily operations. Our headquarters are at Svartsengi, so our staff has been relocated for the most part, aside from our maintenance crews and those on duty at the power plants during the day. So [some office staff are working remotely] in Keflavík, some in Kópavogur and some work from home. Then most of our maintenance crew and technical crew has its base now in Reykjanesvirkjun, which is our other geothermal plant.

When it comes to the hot water, the region is dependent on us …That is our main concern, actually, if we weren’t not able to fulfil our duties when it comes to hot water.

We rerouted [operations] around the time of the evacuation [on November 10, 2023]. But we do need to go into the area to check the engines and various parts of the operation on a daily basis to make sure everything — the technical equipment — is all in order. So that’s why we need to send people in, but we have been able to control it from a distance all through November and December, and we are still doing so from Reykjanesvirkjun.

It’s very difficult to say [when staff will be able to operate as normal at Svartsengi]. It all depends on the seismic activity and it all depends on what the Department of Civil Protection and Icelandic Met Office advise in terms of reentering the area and we just basically need to take this on a day-to-day basis. It is unfortunately not possible to say when we might be back to normal operations.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Ever since this situation arose we have been in close contact with Almannavarnir and HS Veitur … and we have been preparing with both bodies for various scenarios. So we’ve prepared ourselves for the worst case scenario, which would be that the power plant would go under lava or be inoperative due to seismic activities.

The wall around Svartsengi is, of course, one measure that has been taken and a very vital one in order to protect the infrastructure of Svartsengi. The banks have risen only in a period of one month, which is quite extraordinary. We’ve also drawn up plans to direct cold water from other sources and other wells in the region, so we have plenty in case we would not be able to supply cold water.

If Svartsengi Power Plant were to close down and we would not be able to deliver electricity into the main grid, electricity could come from other sources via Landsnet. So, a potential power shutdown at Svartsengi should not affect anything in the short term, but of course it would lower the amount of electricity on the main grid.

When it comes to the hot water, the region is dependent on us. We provide the entire Reykjanes Peninsula with hot water. That is our main concern, actually, if we weren’t not able to fulfil our duties when it comes to hot water. We have been in close contact with HS Veitur and Almannavarnir drawing up plans for that. We have drawn up plans that would mean that homes would have to make sure they have heating equipment like electrical ovens and such, and there are other measures that could see us bring in big boilers that would heat up water in the region to provide to homes. But this would mean that the homes would have to ration their use of hot water. That is the main concern when it comes to the possibility of Svartsengi becoming inoperable.

The community on the Reykjanes Peninsula is close to 30,000 people and, of course, we also have vital infrastructure such as the airport, harbours, health institutions, schools and so forth. So it’s a big concern. But so far, so good. And we have put in a lot of effort to prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario and we have been doing so in close cooperation with national authorities.

We remain optimistic that we will be able to continue our operations in the region. So far the infrastructure has proven to withstand this enormous power of nature that we are standing against. So, we are quite convinced that it will withstand further stress being laid upon the infrastructure in the area. But it is very difficult to predict what will happen next. All we can do is prepare ourselves for various scenarios in close cooperation with national authorities and that corporation has been successful and is ongoing.

The Blue Lagoon: Arndís Huld Hákonardóttir, Director of Marketing & PR

Our staff has been eager to welcome guests back to the Blue Lagoon, and were excited to do so for the two days we were permitted to open. However, the safety and well-being of our guests and staff will always be our first priority and this current closure is necessary to ensure everyone remains safe. We’re also very fortunate that the eruption did not impact our infrastructure.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Although we’re disappointed to not be able to welcome guests at this time, our outlook remains positive to being able to open within the next few days. We’re looking forward to the day we’re able to welcome back our guests and creating moments of joy for each person who walks through our doors.

Watching and waiting

As the residents and various stakeholders on the Reykjanes Peninsula have experienced over the past few years, and as the rest of Iceland and the world at large has witnessed, the region remains subject to the whims of the Earth.

The ground will continue to rumble, the magma reservoir beneath Svartsengi will continue to fill and then empty through magma intrusions, as occurred on Nov. 10, or full-fledged eruptions, as happened Dec. 18. When and where that happens is out of human control.

And so the Reykjanes Peninsula remains in limbo. Hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

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