COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — Iceland has been holding its breath since a series of earthquakes hit its southwestern Reykjanes Peninsula last week, leading to fears of seismic activity around the volcanic mountain Thorbjörn.
Iceland’s Meteorological Office has categorized the volcano as showing "heightened unrest with increased likelihood of eruption." On Monday alone, over 900 earthquakes were detected in the active area between the towns of Sundhnúkur and Grindavík.
A 9-mile-long corridor with magma reaching up to 800 meters (2,625 feet) below ground appeared and has caused fear that the movement could lead to a series of dangerous eruptions, which generally happen when the molten or semi-molten rock reaches the surface and explodes as burning lava. However, in Iceland there is also a risk of underwater explosions.
Bill McGuire, a volcanologist and emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, estimated on Monday that an eruption over the next days is still highly likely.
He said that on land, an eruption would most likely “be dominated by spectacular lava ‘fountaining’ and the production of lava flows,” while “if magma breaks the surface at the southern end of the fracture, it could erupt beneath the sea, which would be a more explosive event.”
Around 3,800 people in Grindavík — 1% of the country's population — were evacuated Saturday night. It is the first time in 50 years that a potential eruption has led to evacuations in the country. It remains uncertain when they will be able to return.
“I don’t really want to think about the worst-case scenario, that I could lose everything I own. And that the house I built might disappear. But life will always go on,” Grindavík resident Páll Thorbjornsson told Danish broadcaster DR.
Late Monday night, the Icelandic government passed a new measure to protect critical infrastructure. On Tuesday, Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir approved the expedited construction of dykes around the Svartsengi power plant to divert potential lava flows, at an estimated cost of about $18.5 million.
While the majority of the recent tremors have been small, several registered over magnitude 3 and up to magnitude 5. They have created big cracks and caused damage to roads, machinery and infrastructure.
Iceland’s popular natural hot spring site the Blue Lagoon closed last week due to the earthquakes. While seismic activity is normal in the country, the magnitude and depth of the magma corridors are more intense than usual.
In 2010, Iceland saw its last big eruption with toxic gas emissions on land, when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted after being dormant for almost 200 years. The incident disrupted air travel in a large swath of Western Europe.
According to Nordic Volcanological Center leader Rikke Pedersen, the country remains at its highest alert level, even though recent earthquakes have been milder. In an interview with DR, she noted that the situation will remain risky for the next few weeks.
“We will have to follow the development over the next few days. Once the magma gets up there, it gives very few signals before it breaks its way to the surface,” she said.
Iceland is situated in the North Atlantic Ocean, just where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are moving apart each year. The process creates fractures in the earth’s crust called volcanic rift zones.
The island nation has 32 active volcanoes, of which Hekla is historically the most known and unpredictable.
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