Iceland – one of the biggest volcanic hotspots in the world – has declared a state of emergency over the latest threat of eruption.
Around 4,000 people have been forced from their homes in the town of Grindavik due to its proximity to the Fagradalsfjall volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula, while the popular Blue Lagoon tourist attraction has been closed.
For many locals, the episode has revived the trauma of the disastrous explosion at another of Iceland’s volcanoes, Eyjafjallajokull, back in 2010.
While the eruption didn’t kill anyone, it did produce a huge cloud of ash that prompted the biggest global aviation shutdown since World War II.
Now, scientists have revealed to MailOnline just how big an eruption could be and if it could rival Eyjafjallajokull, which saw 50,000 flights cancelled and 8million passengers affected.
Iceland is a particular hotspot for seismic activity because it sits on a tectonic plate boundary called the Mid Atlantic Ridge
Around 4,000 people have been forced from their homes in the town of Grindavik due to its proximity to the Fagradalsfjall volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula. Pictured, Mount Fagradalsfjall volcano spews lava after an eruption in Reykjavik, Iceland, on July 16, 2023
The volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula threatens to ‘obliterate’ the town of Grindavik, around 25 miles southwest of Reykjavik. The 4,000 Grindavik residents have been evacuated after a state of emergency was declared on Frida
Dr Dave McGarvie, a volcanologist at the University of Lancaster, said the huge ash cloud like the one we saw 13 years ago is unlikely to happen again right now.
‘A potential future eruption arising from the current unrest will not lead to disruption like that of the Eyjafjallajökull 2010 eruption,’ he said.
‘Eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula are dominated by basalt lava production with only minor ash production, whereas the Eyjafjallajökull 2010 eruption was dominated by ash production.
‘So it is extremely unlikely that an eruption arising from the current unrest will cause disruption to transatlantic air travel.’
Although Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is well outside the danger zone, Iceland’s airport of Keflavík lies around 10 miles (17 km) northwest of the area of unrest.
At the moment, flights are departing and arriving at Keflavik – Iceland’s primary international airport – as usual.
However, as a precaution for domestic and international air travel, the volcanic aviation colour code for the Reykjanes Peninsula is now orange (heightened unrest).
The orange alert represents the third-highest level, although it poses limited hazards to aviation.
The next stage is red, reserved for an imminent or ongoing volcanic eruption that could seriously affect aviation, but this is unlikely.
Eyjafjallajokull erupting in 2010 (pictured) produced a huge cloud of ash that prompted the biggest global aviation shutdown since World War II, with 50,000 flights cancelled and 8million passengers affected
Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a crack in the ocean floor separating the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. A crack in the ground caused by the earthquakes
Pictured, Iceland’s popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, a popular tourist attraction, which has also been closed
As a precaution for domestic and international air travel, the volcanic aviation colour code for the Reykjanes Peninsula has been elevated to orange (heightened unrest)
What is the mid-Atlantic ridge?
The mid-Atlantic ridge (MAR) is a ridge found along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
This rift marks the actual boundary between adjacent tectonic plates, where magma from the mantle reaches the seafloor, erupting as lava.
MAR forms part of the longest mountain range in the world and separates the Eurasian Plate and North American Plate in the North Atlantic, and the African Plate from the South American Plate in the South Atlantic.
Iceland is a particular hotspot for seismic activity because it sits on a tectonic plate boundary called the Mid Atlantic Ridge.
The Mid Atlantic Ridge is a long chain of mountains that stretches down the Atlantic ocean, meaning most of these mountains are underground. It’s gradually pushing North America and Eurasia away from each other.
There are only a few places on Earth where the Mid Atlantic Ridge is exposed on land, but Iceland – which is slap bang in the middle of the ridge – is one of them.
But Iceland is also located over a mantle plume – a column of hot, molten rock that rises from the deep mantle to the surface, becoming lava when it erupts.
In the past week, Grindavik has become lined with massive cracks in the land that are billowing out steam – the result of magma moving underground that pushes up on the Earth’s crust.
Authorities are fearing eruptions of basalt lava – viscous molten rock – that comes to the surface in the region through the cracks right underneath buildings.
Dr Carmen Solana, a volcanologist at the University of Portsmouth, said magma is very close to the surface’ – around 1 to 2 km (0.6 to 1.2 miles) – and an eruption could occur ‘at any time’.
Large cracks appear on a road amid volcanic activity near Grindavik in Iceland. Experts fear houses could collapse or lava could come from them
Map shows the tectonic plates of the lithosphere (the rocky outermost shell) on Earth. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is highlighted in yellow
‘This series of volcanic unrest is creating large earthquakes and a lot of deformation as you can see from the images of cracking roads and the smoke coming to the surface,’ she told MailOnline.
Residents have been evacuated because of the concern that cracks could ‘open literally underneath houses’, she said, leading to ‘complete destruction’ of Grindavik which is a key part of the country’s fishing industry.
Dr Solana agreed that an imminent eruption would not cause similar travel disruption like that of the 2010 eruption.
‘Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 was actually a small eruption but it happened on a volcano underneath an ice cap,’ she said.
‘The interaction of magma with ice, increased the explosivity, broke the magma into very small pieces of ash that went into the atmosphere.
‘This is not the scenario that we’re looking at here.’
Despite the build-up of activity, Dr Solana added that an eruption might not actually happen.
‘At the moment we don’t even know if there’s going to be an eruption,’ she told MailOnline.
‘How much magma is going to come, we don’t really know.
‘There might be an accumulation of magma beneath the surface but that doesn’t mean that all of that is going to come to the surface.’
Professor Marc K. Reichow, a geochemistat the, University of Leicester, said it’s ‘difficult to say’ what the potential size or scale of an eruption will be.
Tourists walk on recently cooled lava from the Fagradalsfjall Volcano in southwestern Iceland back in 2021 (file photo)
‘Depending whether this eruption will take place the proximity to local residences could be dangerous and cause damage to buildings,’ he said.
‘The area has been evacuated and hazard to life is currently minimal.’
Almannavarnir, part of Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, has a dedicated advice page that details Grindavík’s evacuation plan.
Residents should close windows, unplug electrical appliances and secure the home before putting a sign outside to show the house is vacated.
It says: ‘Residents must evacuate their homes and leave town. This is not an emergency evacuation. It is our request to the residents of Grindavík to leave the town without any trouble.
‘There is no immediate danger imminent, the evacuation is primarily preventive with the safety of all Grindvíkin in the first place.’
How a volcanic eruption in 2010 sparked almost a month of chaos for European air travel
A volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 sparked the worst air travel disruption since the Second World War.
Chaos descended within the European travel industry when an unfortunate series of phenomenons combined from a number of relatively small volcanic events at Eyjafjallajokull, on the south side of the island.
Seismic activity had started at the end of 2009 and had intensified up until March 20, when the volcano – which is covered by an ice cap – finally erupted.
The eruption was small – just one out of seven on the scale used to measure eruptions. Globally, it appeared a relatively small event at the time.
But around five days later, scientists began to notice unusual activity.
They found evidence at magma was flowing from underneath the crust into Eyjafjallajokull’s magma chamber and that pressure stemming from the process caused a huge crustal displacement.
While the eruption began as an effusive eruption – where lava runs from the volcano along the ground – the volcano then entered an explosive stage on April 14. This time, the explosion was measured as a four on the volcanic scale
Meanwhile, ice surrounding the volcano started melting and began flooding into the volcano.
This rapid cooling caused the magma to shear into fine and jagged ash particles. It also increased the volcano’s explosive power.
While the eruption began as an effusive eruption – where lava runs from the volcano along the ground – the volcano then entered an explosive stage on April 14. This time, the explosion was measured as a four on the volcanic scale.
A huge ash cloud was fired into the air, reaching up to nine kilometres in height. Around 250 million cubic metres of volcanic material was also spewed into the air as a result of the explosion.
To make matters worse, the volcano was directly under a jet stream and the rapid cooling from the ice water gave the volcano enough power to shoot the ash directly into it.
The jet stream was also unusually stable at the time and sent ash particles from the volcano continuously southeast – towards Europe.
From April 14-20, ash from the volcanic eruption covered large areas of Northern Europe.
About 20 countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic and it affected approximately 10 million travellers, with nearly 100,000 flights to and from and within Europe cancelled across the six day period.
The Airport Operators Association (AOA) estimated that airports lost £80 million over the six-and-a-half days, while the knock-on disruption lasted for around a month.
In the United Kingdom alone thirteen travel firms collapsed during the summer of 2010. The ash cloud disruption was cited as one of the contributing factors.
A huge ash cloud was fired into the air, reaching up to nine kilometres in height. Around 250 million cubic metres of volcanic material was also spewed into the air as a result of the explosion
Several sports matches were postponed, while Liverpool football club had to travel by coach to Madrid in order to play a match in the Europa League.
While the travel disruption mostly ran throughout April, volcanic activity continued at Eyjafjallajokull until October, when scientists declared the eruption was over.
In 2011, a volcano under the Vatnajökull glacier sent thousands of tonnes of ash into the sky in a few days, raising concerns of a repeat of the travel chaos seen across northern Europe.
Though the explosion was larger than Eyjafjallajokull, the impact was not as wide-spread.
A total of 900 flights (out of 90,000 in Europe) were cancelled as a result of the eruption in the period May 23-25.
In 2014, Bárðarbunga erupted in what was the biggest eruption in Iceland in more than 200 years. However, only local travel was impacted as a result.