Iceland volcanic eruption: barriers reinforced as lava flows towards town

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Emergency teams worked through the night to bolster defensive barriers around the evacuated fishing town of Grindavik as lava from the fourth volcanic eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula since December flowed towards it.

After weeks of warnings that semi-molten rock was building up under the ground, the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) said the eruption, at 8.23pm local time (2023 GMT) on Saturday, had opened a nearly 3km-long fissure in the earth between two mountains.

Lava was flowing mainly south and south-east at a rate of about 1km an hour overnight and could reach the ocean, the IMO said. Defensive dykes and barriers were being reinforced to stop the “significantly wider” lava bed wrecking the main coastal road.

By midday on Sunday, scientists said flows appeared to be slowing somewhat but still posed a danger to infrastructure in and around Grindavik. “Seismic activity has decreased since the eruption began,” the IMO’s Pálmi Erlendsson told the broadcaster RÚV.

Another IMO expert, Einar Hjörleifsson, said the barriers authorities had erected around the town appeared to have held and were redirecting flows away from key installations, but a separate flow towards a geothermal power plant still posed a risk.

An emergency vehicle stationed on a road near the volcanic activity on Saturday. Photograph: Marco di Marco/AP

The Svartsengi power plant, which supplies electricity and water to about 30,000 people on the Reykjanes peninsula, was evacuated and has been run remotely since the first eruption in the region, and dykes have been built to protect it.

The eruption site is a few miles north-east of Grindavik, about 30 miles south-west of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. The town’s 3,800 inhabitants were evacuated before the first eruption in December and barely 100 had since returned.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from the nearby Blue Lagoon thermal spa, one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions, RÚV reported, as footage showed smoke billowing and red-orange magma bubbling from the earth.

Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson, a geophysicist who flew over the site in a helicopter, told RÚV that Saturday’s eruption was the most powerful on the peninsula so far, with a longer fissure than in previous eruptions, which he said was “very active” on Saturday evening.

The few residents who had returned to their homes in Grindavik since the last eruption in February, which cut off heating to more than 20,000 people as lava flows destroyed roads and pipelines, were safely evacuated, officials said.

The town was first evacuated in November when the Svartsengi volcanic system awakened after almost 800 years with a series of earthquakes that opened large cracks in the ground north of the town, eventually erupting on 18 December.

On that occasion the town was spared, but a second eruption that began on 14 January sent lava towards it and several buildings were destroyed, although defensive walls bolstered after the first eruption stopped much of the flow.

A third eruption on 8 February lasted only hours but engulfed a key hot water pipeline. None of the most recent Reykjanes eruptions have affected domestic or international flights from Iceland’s airports.

Iceland sits on a volcanic hotspot in the North Atlantic and is home to 33 active volcano systems. Authorities are highly experienced at dealing with frequent eruptions. The most disruptive recent event was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which led to widespread airspace closures over Europe.

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