From Iceland — The Town That Nature Closed

The Town That Nature Closed

Published June 14, 2024

The Town That Nature Closed
Elías Þórsson
Photo by
Axel Sigurðarson for The Reykjavík Grapevine

Exploring the impact of ongoing volcanic activity on Grindavík and its displaced residents

To live in Iceland is to be at the mercy of nature. Throughout the nation’s 1000 year history countless natural disasters have precipitated the loss of lives and homes. Most recently, the people of Grindavík, a village on the southern coast of the Reykjanes peninsula, have been forced from their homes and livelihoods by significant seismic and volcanic activity, culminating in a series of dramatic eruptions in late 2023 that are ongoing today.

About a 40-minute drive from Reykjavík, just a stone’s throw from the glamorous Blue Lagoon and a short drive from the Keflavík international airport, lies Grindavík, a small, peaceful town that was built up around its ideal, natural harbour. Since Iceland was first settled in the 9th century, people have resided there in relative peace and quiet.

That all changed on the evening of November 10, when an earthquake swarm that had been ongoing for weeks increased in intensity as a magma intrusion burrowed beneath the village. Just before midnight, as the ground shook violently, the government ordered the town to evacuate, forcing residents to leave their homes and possessions behind. Five eruptions have since taken place around Grindavík, with the latest starting on May 29, which as of print is still ongoing.

“I, like the rest of the town, had to leave my home on November 10 in the wake of the extraordinary events that were taking place,” says Grindavík Mayor Fannar Jónsson. “We expected to be able to return and at least spend Christmas at home, but things turned out differently.”

Fannar’s office is now located far from Grindavík town hall. He presides over town business from downtown Reykjavík’s Tollhúsið, the old customs house overlooking the harbour. An entire floor of the building has been taken over by municipal officials, who go about governing what is essentially a ghost town. Most of the businesses have closed and homes stand abandoned, many still full of their owners’ possessions.

“My wife and I don’t need to complain as we were able to quickly find a new apartment and because we have no children we didn’t need to worry about finding new schools or kindergartens,” says Fannar. “But not everyone from Grindavík is as lucky as we are; many people have struggled to find housing, which is hardly surprising considering the town housed 1% of the nation.”

Fannar took office in 2017, but seven years later he has been forced into a job he never expected to do. He has a stoic manner, but there is a clear sense that the burden of leading a town in crisis weighs heavily on him. However, seven months after the evacuation, he remains optimistic his town will regroup — but how long that will take and how many will choose to return remains to be seen.

“I am confident that Grindavík will be rebuilt, but how long it takes, that could take years. Take Vestmannaeyjar as an example, over 50 years later the inhabitants there are still fewer than they were before the eruption,” he says, drawing a comparison to the Westman Islands, which were evacuated when residents of Heimaey were awakened by an eruption at 1:55 a.m. on January 23, 1976. The island was swiftly evacuated by the local fishing fleet. “We know it will take a long time, but before the eruption Grindavík was a growing community with one of the best fishing industries in the country and almost no unemployment. We estimate that a majority would want to return, but we know there is a sizable group of people who will not.”

We expected to be able to return and at least spend Christmas at home, but things turned out differently.

As Fannar points out, a municipality can not deal with a situation like this on its own, and he claims that Alþingi has done a great job in assisting the municipal government and standing by the people of Grindavík, considering the challenges. He claims there is a continuous dialog and that authorities have been responsive to their criticisms. However, he has nothing but praise for how his fellow countrymen and how society at large has reached out to the people of Grindavík.

“There is immense togetherness among Icelanders. Take, for instance, the other municipalities, they have done amazingly in receiving our children in their schools and kindergartens. We are immensely grateful for how society has assisted us, without that assistance we would be much worse off,” says Fannar.

It is togetherness that is needed for a community to overcome such a dire, unprecedented reality. The town may be effectively closed, but its residents have picked up their lives outside its borders.

“Grindavík has always been a tight knit community where people stand together when facing adversity and tragedy, ” says Fannar. “What people miss so much is the community we had, our family, friends and coworkers, who now live across the country. My impression is that, in general, people are optimistic that we’ll be able to return to Grindavík in the near future.”

No business

Not everyone is as cautiously optimistic about Grindavík’s future as Fannar. Dagmar Valsdóttir is a former resident of Grindavík and the owner of a guesthouse — a business she founded to fund her future — that will stay closed for the unforeseeable future.

I am suing the government because of how differently small business owners like myself are being treated compared to businesses like the Blue Lagoon.

She has taken the option of selling her single family home to Þórkatla, the state-run fund created this spring to help residents restart their lives elsewhere. By early May, around 600 homeowners had signed onto the fund to sell their properties, with many more expected to follow suit. Everyone who sells will hold a three-year buyback option. Dagmar now resides with her husband and sons in Kópavogur.

“Since November, I have just been rocking up and down, mostly down, but there is also a fighting spirit that is with you,” Dagmar says of her emotional state amid the turmoil. “I thank God I never had any mental problems before this and that I don’t drink, so I haven’t, like many, hit the bottle harder than before. Despite that, I can’t put into words how difficult this has been.”

Dagmar describes her family’s life in Grindavík as “perfect” and that she never wanted to live anywhere else.

“Everyone I know has sold their homes to Þórkatla, I think it’s probably only older people who don’t know where to go that won’t sell,” says Dagmar. “There are those who are determined to go back when it becomes possible, but I don’t see Grindavík becoming a normal town again. I can picture it being turned into a geopark where tourists can come and see this former town, but I find it highly unlikely that people will live there.”

Dagmar has been very critical of the Icelandic government for its response to the situation in Grindavík, which she feels has been sluggish and lacking transparency.

“Everything the government has done, they have done poorly or not at all,” says Dagmar. “Take, for example, the support they said they’d give to renters. They didn’t tell us how much we’d get, but people were in a panic to find a place to stay and then it turns out [the support] won’t be for the whole amount — but we are still paying off our housing loans in Grindavík.”

The government is currently buying private homes from citizens, but earlier in the spring, it reiterated its stance that no similar scheme was planned for businesses. This means that small business owners like Dagmar are stuck paying off property loans for a business she is unable to operate, she is currently actively campaigning against the government’s handling of the situation.

“I am suing the government because of how differently small business owners like myself are being treated compared to businesses like the Blue Lagoon. I am not allowed to stay open and the support I get compared to them, due to our size, is much less,” says Dagmar. “I also think it is only fair that my business gets bought out, like my home.”

A national challenge

It’s not just for the municipal government that the eruptions in Grindavík pose a unique and unprecedented challenge. The national government has had to improvise a response, while drawing on what examples there exist from recent history. Only once before has an eruption started in a settlement in Iceland and that was the 1973 Heimaeyjargos in Vestmannaeyjar. The eruption led to the evacuation of the island, mass property damage and the death of one man. However, there are key differences between then and now; The Heimaey eruption was a singular event, while we still don’t know how many more eruptions will occur in the area around Grindavík, whether an eruption will begin within the town limits, or for how long the current activity will persist.

“This has all been one big roller coaster ride, you are working on a project and then another gets thrown in your lap. You build up your expectations and then they break down, but you always hope,” says Vilhjálmur Árnason, an Independence Party MP from Grindavík. “The hardest thing is probably to see our society shatter as people spread across the country. There is sorrow as people lose their homes, businesses and daily routines.”

It is not just the funds needed to relocate residents that are enormous, in late December the government allocated close to 6 billion ISK for the construction of a protective barrier around the town.Barriers — massive berms formed by bulldozing lava rock — were erected to protect Grindavík, but also the vital power plant in Svartsengi and the Blue Lagoon.

Vilhjálmur says that more residents and business owners give up with each new eruption — and for the government the challenges keep ballooning. But, a true politician, he claims that as long as the barrier holds, Grindavík remains one of the best locations for businesses in Iceland.

“The town is close to Reykjavík, to the Keflavík airport, has a good harbour and easy access to energy,” he says. “Of course not all businesses can remain and I have complete sympathy for those who choose to leave. In Iceland we’ve always had to live with unpredictable nature and deal with avalanches, earthquakes, dangerous waves, etc. So we always need to estimate what is acceptable and what is unacceptable risk.”

The situation in Grindavík has been a baptism by fire for the government. Unlike many other issues on the government’s agenda, it needs to be tackled now — nature won’t just be left to die in a committee or made to wait for a more convenient time. It has remained top of the agenda since December and that’s where it will likely remain for the unforeseeable future. Overall, Vilhjálmur says the government has done well to assist his constituents, but as it learns on the fly, things can always improve.

“This is an unprecedented situation and the tasks and challenges have been monumental,” he says. “I feel the government has done well to stand with us, but that is not to say some things shouldn’t have been done faster and that the flow of information couldn’t, at times, have been better.”

Our collective trauma

Collective trauma refers to the psychological, emotional and social impact experienced by a community or large group of people following a shared traumatic event, such as a natural disaster. Unlike individual trauma, which affects a single person, collective trauma affects the fabric of a community, influencing how people interact with each other and perceive their environment and their futures.

In 1995, a series of avalanches in the Westfjords devastated the local community. Forteen lost their lives in the village of Súðavík and 20 in Flateyri. Icelandic authorities and society were quick to come together to help the survivors rebuild their homes and businesses, but what was given less consideration was the collective trauma such events inflicted on communities. Thirty years ago was a very different time when it comes to psychology and the treatment of PTSD and the collective trauma such events bring about.

What people miss so much is the community we had, our family, friends and coworkers, who now live across the country. My impression is that, in general, people are optimistic that we’ll be able to return to Grindavík in the near future.

“Everyone in Grindavík is going through trauma these days,” says Elínborg Gísladóttir, the National Church priest for the Grindavík parish. “Natural disaster trauma is nothing I have experienced before and people are dealing with it in different ways, but it is always difficult.”

Elínborg and her family have decided to sell their house to the Þórkatla fund and, on July 2, will have to hand over their home to the government. Despite that, she continues to serve the people of Grindavík out of her office in Tollhúsið, just down the hall from major Fannar. There her parishioners get together and continue the work of a community that might presently not exist in a geographical sense, but remains very much alive and active. From next year, the Grindavík parish will relocate to nearby Vogar á Vatnsleysuströnd, but she hopes the congregation can gather in the Grindavík church again when it’s possible.

An emergency centre was put up by the Red Cross in Tollhúsið where residents of Grindavík could meet with trauma counsellors. Mayor Fannar is thankful for the mental health assistance that has been offered to the people of Grindavík by the public and private sector, but as he points out as with the rebuilding of the town, this is a long term project.

“Experts tell us we’ll need to continue offering psychological assistance to people, because trauma can resurface and it is necessary to care for the residents,” says Fannar.

Thirty years later, the people of the Westfjords are still dealing with the collective trauma caused by the avalanches, just as the events that have taken place in the past seven months will be with the people of Grindavík for generations to come. Elínborg claims that what is important now is for people to take stock, reflect and focus on selfcare.

“We need to be patient because the trauma is still taking hold. We need to slow down, rest and prioritise our mental wellbeing. For now, the chapter on the town of Grindavík is closed,” says Elínborg.

Nature’s uncertainty

Professor of geophysics at the University of Iceland Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson is one of the country’s foremost experts on volcanoes and since last November he has been busy taking questions from the local and international media.

“The current eruption is not showing any signs of coming to an end and, even when it does, we need to be prepared for a lot more eruptions,” says Magnús. “It is very understandable that the latest one was the final straw for many residents.”

The last time the Reykjanes peninsula was an active volcanic site was eight centuries ago and that period lasted from around the year 900 into the 13th century. However, that is not to say that there were constant eruptions in that 300 year period, rather the volcanic systems erupted sporadically, with the Earth opening and lava rushing forth. That is hardly comforting for the people of Grindavík, but according to Magnús it is equally likely that the current activity could suddenly end.

“There remains much uncertainty about Grindavík, but chances are good that if the eruptions continue as they have, then we will be able to protect the town and considering the billions that are at stake, I’d say doing everything we can to do so is worth it.”

He points out that when the eruption started in Vestmannaeyjar, critics had said that trying to protect the town from the onrushing lava was a waste of time, effort and money.

“Nobody would claim that now, but at the time, there were those that maintained that erecting barriers and pumping water on the lava was futile. However, the town was saved, people returned and, in the end, the lava created an even better natural harbour than before.”

We can’t rule out that an eruption could take place within Grindavík, but it is unlikely.

The worst case scenario for Grindavík is that the eruptive fissures move closer to the town, possibly bypassing the protective barrier. According to Magnús, it is highly unlikely that an eruption could start directly under the town, but that everything is possible.

“We can’t rule out that an eruption could take place within Grindavík, but it is unlikely,” he says. “Never in history has a fissure gone that far south and reached the ocean.”

Even for a geophysicist, nature can seem to bring about more questions than answers, but what is equally important for scientists and Icelandic society alike is to learn how best to adapt and deal with the challenges that arise. The volcanos that brought Iceland up from the bottom of the Atlantic aren’t going anywhere.

“There is much to be learned from this and there is always something happening that surprises you. Nature is always teaching us new things and as soon as we think we have the truth, something new comes along,” says Magnús.

It is impossible to predict how things will continue to develop below the surface, but above ground the daily lives of the townspeople of Grindavík continue in their new homes across the country. Just as it happened eight centuries ago, volcanic activities could suddenly end in the coming months or years and residents might return, but it will never be the same Grindavík the townsfolk had to flee on November 10.

Follow the Grapevine’s ongoing volcano coverage.

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